The Navajo Nation

Historical and archaeological evidence points to the Navajo people entering the Southwest around 1400 AD. Their oral history still contains stories of that migration as the journey began in eastern Alaska and northwestern Canada centuries after their ancestors made the journey across the Bering Land Bridge from central Asia, about 10,000 years ago. They were primarily hunter-gatherers until they came into contact with the Pueblo peoples and learned the basics of how to survive in this significantly drier climate. Navajo oral history points to a long relationship between the Navajos and the Puebloans as they learned from and traded with each other.

When the Spanish first arrived, the Navajos occupied much of the area between the San Francisco Peaks (in Arizona), Hesperus Mountain and Blanca Peak (in Colorado) and Mount Taylor (in New Mexico). Spanish records indicate the Navajo traded bison meat, hides and stone to the Puebloans in exchange for maize and woven cotton goods. It was the Spanish who brought sheep to the New World and the Navajo took to sheep-herding quickly with sheep becoming a form of currency and sign of wealth (the word Navajo actually means sheep thief).

When the Americans arrived in force after 1846, things began to change. The first fifteen years were marked by broken promises and treaties by the Americans, leading to increasing raids by the Navajo and animosities on both sides. Finally, Brigadier General James H. Carleton ordered Colonel Kit Carson to round up the Navajo and transport them to Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico for internment. Carson succeeded only by engaging in a scorched earth campaign in which his troops swept through Navajo country killing anyone carrying a weapon and destroying any crops, livestock and dwellings they found. Facing starvation and death, the last band of Navajos surrendered at Canyon de Chelly.

Prior to this, Carson had been a welcome and respected friend for most Native Americans. The methods used against the Navajo pretty much destroyed that reputation and he became known as an "Indian killer." After the hostilities of the Civil War ceased, Carson went to the Fort Lyon area in Colorado, an appointed Indian Agent for the Southern Arapahoe and Cheyenne. He died a few years later.

Carson's campaign in 1864 led straight into "the Long Walk" to Bosque Redondo, a 300-mile trek during which at least 10% of the people died along the way. At Bosque Redondo they discovered the government had not allocated an adequate supply of water, livestock, provisions or firewood to support the 4,000-5,000 people being interned there. They also discovered on arrival that the government had also interned people from another tribe there, deadly enemies of the Navajo. The Army also did little to protect the Navajo from raids by other tribes or by local Anglo citizens. Another 10% of the Navajo Nation died there and those still alive almost wished they'd died, too.

The failure was such that the Federal government and the Navajo negotiated a treaty that allowed the people to walk back to a reservation that was only a shadow of their former territory little more than a couple years after they had been forced out. However, succeeding years have seen additions to the reservation until today it is the largest Native American Reservation in the 48 contiguous states.

Large deposits of uranium ore were discovered on the Navajo Nation after World War II but the mining that followed ignored basic environmental protection for the workers, the waterways and the land. The Navajo have made claims of high rates of cancer and lung disease from the environmental contamination but the Federal government has yet to offer comprehensive compensation. What compensation has been offered has been held up by a Congress seemingly intent on waiting for those workers to die.

Navajo Pottery

As a semi-nomadic tribe, the Navajo never made much pottery, preferring to use baskets for most storage purposes. After learning how to make pottery from the Puebloans of the Rio Grande area, they did produce a small amount of pottery for ceremonial uses. Once they were more settled , pottery began to make more sense. Through the 1700's and into the mid 1800's, there was a significant amount of pottery produced but once the railroads came through and trading posts were set up, it was much easier to purchase enameled cookware and such so Navajo pottery making almost completely died out.

Because of their geographical location, those few Navajo potters producing pottery for either ceremonial or personal use were never approached by the railroad traders. Like today, most of the remaining Navajo potters were located in the environs of Black Mesa as that was where the best clay was to be found.

Rose Williams is considered the matriarch of modern Navajo pottery. She learned from Grace Barlow (her aunt) and passed her knowledge and experience on to her daughters and many others. Today, most Navajo pottery is heavy, thick-walled and coated with pine pitch (a sealer they also use on many of their baskets).

Much Navajo pottery has little in the way of design but many pieces have a repousse biyo' (a traditional decorative fillet below the rim). Because of tribal religious restrictions, many traditional Navajo potters either don't add any decorations to their pieces or they stick to pre-approved Navajo weaving patterns. Those Navajo potters who have become "Christianized" ignore those religious restrictions (and there are multiple splinter Christian missionary groups all over the Navajo Nation).

Navajo Potters