The Navajo Dine Tribe

The Navajo Dine Tribe

In 1640 the Spaniard Coronado, with a small army which included women and hundreds of Indian allies from Mexico, moved into what is now New Mexico, where today's Navajo Dine Tribe flourishes, looking for the Zunis and their fabled Seven Cities of Gold. Nobody seemed to notice that there were only six cities occupied by the Zunis, but they did notice that there was almost no gold to be seen. A Plains Indian living at Pecos talked Coronado into traveling even further north and east to find his treasure. That didn’t work out too well for either of them.

While crossing the Texas panhandle the Spaniards came across a band of Natives working their way southward. They had large pack dogs to carry their teepee-like tents and other goods. It turned out that this group was part of the great Athabaskan migration. These were the Apaches.

The Apaches—a Zuni word for the whole group—would multiply and soon surround the quietly farming Pueblo towns. There were more than 100 Pueblos at the time. The Athabaskan speakers split up into more than a dozen bands and one of these groups located in the country just south of the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico. By several accidents of history, they quickly swelled in numbers. This was mainly due to the great Pueblo Revolt in 1680. In only a few hundred years the Apaches were more numerous than all the other tribes and in less time than that the Navajo (Dine) Tribe would be the largest Apache division by far.

After the Spanish introduced horses in 1640 the Navajos quickly became the best horsemen in the Southwest which was useful when they raided other groups neither as well mounted or as good fighters. The Navajos loved the raiding life. Snatching women and girls from the Rio Grande Spanish and Pueblo communities helped swell their numbers. The main purpose of the raids was to add to their herds of sheep and horses, but they picked up other useful things along the way.

Navajo Rugs

From the Spanish they picked up weaving, though they used a loom of Pueblo invention—mainly because it was easy to construct and didn’t have to be carried from place to place when they moved. As they often did, they improved on the design to allow ever more complex designs and larger weavings, we have come to know and love as Navajo Rugs. They had some magnificent Churro sheep they had picked up earlier and that long-staple silky wool was perfect for making clothing and body blankets, the first forms they mastered.

One characteristic of the Navajo (Dine) Tribe which has served them well is that they are not only excellent mimics, being willing and able to borrow anything that struck their fancy, but they are extremely talented artists who always managed to create something much better, and more complex, more attractive, and even more useful that the original.


Navajo Sandpaintings

They borrowed extensively from Hopi and Zuni religious practice and one of the things they picked up on was sandpainting. But the Pueblos’ sand paintings were small and fairly simple. The Navajos made them larger, and more colorful, and more varied than the originals. Eventually their various rites like the Beauty Way, or the Enemy Way, or the Mountain Way would include literally hundreds of complicated sand paintings. These amazing works of art would last only a single day because once used by the patient they were created for for, they were destroyed and the sand scattered to return to the landscape.

Navajo Pottery

The only art form the Pueblos had that wasn’t borrowed by the Navajos was pottery. The tribes of the Southwest had one of the greatest ceramic traditions in the world, dating back more than two thousand years. Several possible explanations have been suggested, but it was probably a purely practical matter. There was not a great desire to put a lot of time and energy into objects that would have to be left behind as the Navajos were constantly on the move. Utilitarian pottery—a pot to cook in—was easily made on the spot and then left behind without a thought. This was true of heavy items like grinding stones, and even their log and mud houses. A new one could be built in a day.

Navajo Hogan

The oldest Navajo hogans—their name for house—were built like a squat teepee, using logs they stood upright and covered with dirt. The size of the hogan was determined by the size the the timbers available. A hole was left at the top for at least some of the smoke to escape. There were no windows and the doorway was a small tunnel that was hard to pass through, but easy to defend. They actually looked like earthen igloos.


These homes were dark, smoky and too small for comfort so the Navajos, always adaptive and creative, adopted a new design much better suited to family life. These were round log cabins with a cribbed dirt roof. Thick walled hogans were somewhat cool in summer and warm in winter. Hogans were built with either six or eight sides. There have been theories about this too—there are theories about most everything. But the Navajos say that the choice between six or eight sides was purely one of practicality. How big a hogan was needed, and how tall were the trees in the area? The pinions and cedars (actually junipers) of Navajo country are considered a pygmy forest. Those trees never grow to great heights. When the Navajos moved to the high country in the summer where the tall ponderosa pines grow they sometimes built a conventional four-sided cabin. The Pueblos used these trees for roof beams in their more permanent buildings.


The pinions also produced nuts in the fall which were a valuable dietary supplement. These days more of the nuts are sold at high prices than eaten for fun. Some years this is a great economic boost because the trees are fickle in their cone production and pinion nuts are in high demand. Pine nut picking becomes a social event as people gather where the nuts are most bountiful.

In the summer Navajos would construct a shade house, topped with oak branches with the leaves on, and openwork walls to protect from sudden breezes. All the cooking and eating would be done in the shade and often the loom would be set up inside, or in a second shade built for the purpose. There was better light, and the summer air could circulate. In spite of the desert environment, the temperature seldom gets extreme on the high plateau. Much of the current Navajo reservation is over five thousand feet elevation, and the various mountain ranges are over seven thousand.

Navajo Rugs

Navajos adapted the Hopi loom, but made it much larger and the threads that control the pattern are much more complex. The warp string (up and down the rug) is a single thread, laced to the crossbar. This means that large rugs are very hard to string. The weavers control the pattern which can be much more complex than weavings on a conventional loom as used by the Mexican weavers.


Even a casual perusal of Navajo blankets shows the incredible complexity of their designs. The most amazing part of the process is that this complex pattern is held entirely in the weaver’s head—there are no blueprints to work from. To make the process more interesting, even a moderately sized weaving is commonly rolled up on the bottom pole as the weaver works so there is no visual clues to work from.

Most of the really large Navajo rugs are worked on by two or more people at the same time. Large rugs may take more than a year to finish. How can they each have the pattern in their brain? But when the finished weaving is unrolled, elements like six pointed stars are perfectly placed and perfectly sized. Navajo rug designs must be absolutely symmetrical—the four quadrants must be mirror images of each of the others. With no visual clues this is an astonishing feat.

Anglo Americans are somewhat obsessed with finding outside origins for Native artistic achievements. For example, it is widely accepted that the huge and complex weavings from the Teec Nos Pos and Two Grey Hills areas of the Reservation were copied from imported Oriental carpets. Probably not. Or that they were designed by various early traders, especially Lorenzo Hubbell at Ganado, or J. B. Moore at Crystal. The extent that traders were actually able to push certain designs was pretty much limited to economic pressure—they only bought what they liked. Navajo weavers were able to push back to some extent because they knew the traders had to have product to sell.

  1. B. Moore’s claim to history is the wonderful color catalog he published in 1911. But Moore himself admitted that the catalog was something of a failure because Navajo weavers refused to exactly copy any of the rugs, which made the catalog almost useless because customers expected to get the weaving they had chosen, and not one sort of like it.

Hubbell did manage to force his weavers to use a particular color scheme: red, which required an artificial dye, black, white and gray which could be natural. Today the only natural wool rugs being produced are the weavings from Toadlena and Two Grey Hills. They are also the only tapestries still using hand spun yarns. Cleaning, carding and spinning natural wool is a very long and tedious process.


One of the side effects of using natural wool, right from the sheep, is that all the lanolin was not removed, sometimes the wool would hardly be cleaned at all, and this made the woven blanket nearly waterproof, which was very useful in a textile used for personal adornment. Navajo body blankets were in high demand and the design known as the “chief blanket” was traded to other tribes all over the country. Some of the highest prices ever paid for Indian art objects has been for Navajo textiles.

The Navajo Dine Tribe had been on the move for hundreds of years and once they had horses, raiding the Spanish colonies along the Rio Grande and the Pueblos who raised corn, beans, squash and chiles, was rewarding in so many ways. In 1861 America went to war and the sparsely settled West was largely abandoned. The two forts near Gallup, New Mexico, Fauntleroy and Defiance, were closed down and the regular troops moved east to join in the Civil War. With the threat of the soldiers removed, the Navajos could do as they pleased.

In 1864 the U. S. Government decided to do something to protect the New Mexico Territory which had only been part of the country for a few years. They gave an Indian Agent, Kit Carson, a military title and the New Mexico Militia and told him to round up the Navajos. He was only partially successful because there was a lot of wild country in southern Utah and northern New Mexico and Arizona and thousands of Navajos simply disappeared. The rest were starved into submission.

Long Walk

The militia would never have accomplished this task without their Indian allies, especially the Utes from the north and the Zunis from the south. Hopi and Zuni scouts showed Carson the way into hidden canyons where he destroyed corn fields and peach orchards. After a “Long Walk” from Arizona to eastern New Mexico, thousands of Navajos spent four years of captivity from 1864 to 1868. This period introduced the tribe to things like coffee, white flour, and Anglo dress. This was also when Navajo Dine Tribe perfected silver work they had already been doing for some time.

Navajo Jewelry

Many “authorities” insist that the Navajos learned silversmithing from the Mexicans after the Long Walk period. If the Navajos were clever silversmiths before 1864, it is hard to argue they learned the skill in 1868. It is also impossible to argue that they learned complex metalworking techniques like silver mounted bridles and concho belts in just two years—work they had perfected by 1870. There is also little or no proof the Mexicans had any direct role in “teaching” them the skill. Navajos were great copiers and adaptors, but always going their own way.

An Army surgeon stationed at Fort Defiance before the Civil War wrote a sketch of the Navajo tribe for the Tenth Annual Report of the Smithsonian, 1856. He relates that blankets of their own making were used as outer wear, and “under and sometimes over which is worn a belt, to which are attached oval pieces of silver, plain or variously wrought.” A bit further on he speaks of Navajo bridles, saying, “The side and front parts consist of strings; sometimes made of leather, and not unfrequently ornamented with plates of pure silver…” not a particularly clear description.

Then an Albuquerque reporter in 1864, observing as the Navajos were being moved to Fort Sumner, writes: “…the Navajo warriors themselves fabricate belts and bridles, and buckles, buttons and clasps of silver which are tasteful ornaments to their finely fitting cloth and buckskin dresses.”

The Navajos were still straggling in to Fort Sumner when Major Henry Davis Wallen wrote in a report “Some of them are quite clever as silversmiths.” Unfortunately, that was all he had to say. There are many such comments in the literature of the period.

Experts also argue that in those early years there were only a handful of Navajos making these pieces. Maybe even fewer. If that was the case, they were very busy indeed, turning out that quantity of work. There were stages in the development of Navajo jewelry, but the time elapsed was remarkably brief. They went from wrought work (hammering, chiseling and stamping lumps of melted coins) to casting, fabricating (soldering smaller elements together), stone setting and other skills.

The Navajo Dine Tribe silverwork has always been distinct from that of other tribes because of their love for the metal itself. Massive, heavy and chunky are just a few of the descriptive terms used. Only they and other Natives had the taste for arm guards (originally protection from the twang of bow strings) called ketohs or gatos or bow guards, but bracelets could be made with the same designs.

Squash Blossom Necklace

The squash blossom necklace may have been adapted from Spanish young pomegranate fruit dangles, but the Navajos simply called them “the beads that spread out.” It was the Americans who called them squash blossoms. It is the same for the crescent shaped pendant at the bottom of the necklaces. It is purported to be an Arabic symbol to ward off the evil eye. Arab influence spread across North Africa until the Moors conquered Spain in 7ll AD. Five hundred years later the Spanish brought the symbol to the New World and eventually into New Mexico, where the Indians found it attractive, not symbolic, as it hung on the brow of a horse bridle. Then it was adapted, in many forms, into the necklace pendent it is today.

Squash Blossom has become the accepted term for any pendent necklace with regularly repeated elements spaced in the beads on either side. Many of these necklaces have no “blossoms” at all, but the usage sticks. Giving Navajo smiths their due, the art of metal work must have been much earlier than the accepted time schedule and the smiths did not need to be “taught” much of anything because they could puzzle out construction from the item itself, often improving on it in the process, like concho belts.

One last note: Some have insisted on using the word concha because it means shell in Spanish. No Navajo ever saw conchos as shells and the most common usage is concho. If you say concha you just look silly. The same goes for the silver necktie. It is a bolo tie and its development precedes either a company in California or a cowboy in Arizona. Indians were making tie slides out of sheep vertebrae long before and there was a natural progression to the design of today. Chin straps to hold wide-brimmed hats on in the wind were common and there was a slide on the cords to run up under the chin and hold it tight.

The tips on the cords, you will be happy to know, are called aglets (pronounce aglit) which is the name for the hard tip on a shoelace. Aglet also refers to decorative tips on neck ribbons, which suggests another origin for the tie. One thing pretty unacceptable is that the tie was named for an Argentine throwing device called a boleadora, or bola. They don’t look or act anything alike.

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