Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The Navajo Way


When we moved to New Mexico in 2017 we decided to leave behind most of our New England furnishings and decorations and instead give our new home a seriously Santa Fe look.  We brought with us all of the southwestern art and craft works had already accumulated during our 25 years of vacationing out here.  But left behind our oh-so-New-England Hitchcock dining room and replaced it with an equally regional table-and-chair set made of salvaged antique doors and other “[Spanish] colonial pieces,” handcrafted in “Old” Mexico. 

The majority of our acquisitions however have been smaller and less functional – paintings, basketry, pottery – most of them Native American or Hispanic folk art found at estate sales throughout the town. With Covid precautions these company-run events have moved from the owner’s homes to a large store space in a shopping mall about 10 minutes from our address.  The items are still just as varied and interesting, but no longer do we get to wander through stranger’s residences to see how they personalized their own space.  

Our latest purchase came from that venue.  The estate sale staff are not always totally knowledgeable about the items.  This one, which now hangs on our living room wall, was said to be a contemporary Navajo Medallion.  Could be.  Or not. 

We do have two pre-pandemic purchases that we know for sure are both Navajo.  Back then the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture had monthly “Meet the Curators” events to which the public could bring their items and have them authenticated – without the monetary valuation.  They both are modern weavings – one of which we are hoping to bring to the Antiques Roadshow, which is slated to visit Santa Fe next summer.  Pictures of them, and words about them will come in a separate email.  We did enjoy seeing CT represented on the roadshow recently, taped in summer 2021 at the Wadsworth Mansion in Middletown.

But, speaking of Navajos…

Many people had never heard the term “Navajo Nation” before it appeared in the national news during the early days of the Covid pandemic. In parts of Connecticut, Red Sox Nation maybe. Since the Super Bowl, LA Ram Nation perhaps. But not Navajo, which unlike these sports team sovereign states is actually a real Nation – with real citizens (300,000, 36% in New Mexico) living on 27,000 sq. mi. of real estate located in parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. In late 2020 it was one of the areas in the country hit hardest by the Corona virus. Now it is one of the safest, reports thenation.com. “While the rest of the country were saying no to masks, no to staying home, and saying you’re taking away my freedoms, here on Navajo, it wasn’t about us individually...It was about protecting our families, our communities and our nation.”

And it all began with Four Sacred Mountains.

In Christianity there is Adam and Eve. For the Navajo (or Diné as they prefer) it is the Emergence Story.  In this account the Diné, passed through several underground worlds before emerging onto earth amid the quartet of mountains that demarcate their traditional homeland – Blanca Peak, Mount Taylor, San Francisco Peak, and Hesperus Mountain.

Or not. (Tribal oral accounts and modern social scientists often differ.)

Anthropologists would say the Navajo migrated into the Southwest between 200 and 1300 A.D after splitting off from the Athabaskans – an Indigenous language family originating in western Canada and Alaska. New Mexico also has four Apache offshoots – Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarilla and Lipan.

Either way, between 900 A.D. and 1525 A.D. New Mexico Navajos were trading regularly with the Pueblo peoples – while introducing new goods and technologies, such as moccasins and flint to the area. In the 17th and 18th centuries the tribe spread into southeastern Utah and northeastern Arizona.

The Navajo first came into contact with Spanish explorers in the 16th century. The Natives quickly incorporated some of the Spanish agricultural techniques and animals (goats, churra sheep) into their subsistence system. They also adopted horses, which facilitated their slave and food raids on neighboring tribes. Both Navajo and Apache aided Pueblo Natives in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, which temporarily drove the Spaniards out of New Mexico. In 1693 the Spanish reconquered the Rio Grande Valley, causing some Puebloans to take refuge among the Navajos, resulting in an intermixing of the two cultures.

“Diné philosophy, spirituality, and sheep are intertwined like wool in the strongest weaving. Sheep symbolize the Good Life, living in harmony and balance on the land. Before they acquired domesticated sheep on this continent, Diné held the Idea of Sheep in their collective memory for thousands of years. While wild mountain sheep provided meat and the Diné gathered wool from the shedding places, the species of sheep in North America do not have a herd behavior that permits domestication. As a result, the Diné asked their Holy People to send them a sheep that would live with them and with care they would provide a sustainable living. In the early 1600s, Navajo acquisition of ‘la raza churra’ [churra breed] sheep from the Spanish colonists inspired a radical lifestyle change to an agro-pastoralist way of life and expanded mobility.” (Navajolifeway.com) The Navajo acquired their sheep through trading and raiding – ovine being much easier to rustle than equines or bovines, which would scatter. While the former would follow them like…

In 1847 the United States took control of New Mexico – and messed up things biologically, economically, and semantically (corrupting the wool-givers honorific to “churro”).
The Spanish and Natives controlled the breeding of their stock to ensure purity. But in the 1850's thousands of Churro were sent west to supply the California Gold Rush. And most of the remaining Spanish-owned Churro were cross-bred with “fine wool” rams to help fill the demand for garment wool generated by the increasing U.S. population, and the Civil War. Then in 1863 the U.S. Army declared war on the Navajo – as part of which they decimated the Navajo flocks. (More on this below.)

According to their oral tradition, the Diné were taught to weave by two holy ones: Spider Man and Spider Woman – he created the loom of sunshine, lightning and rain, while she taught the Navajo how to weave.

Some anthropologists however say the Navajo learned the craft in the 17th century from the neighboring Pueblo tribes – perhaps during the Pueblo Revolt when many Puebloans sought refuge in Navajo homes. Others suggest that Navajo had picked it up earlier. There is however agreement that (1) BCE (Before Churro Era) both Navajo and Puebloans wove with cotton, which they grew, and found wool left behind by feral ovine. (2) Puebloans introduced the Navajo to vertical looms replacing their much smaller back-strap looms that could not produce a textile more than 18” wide. And (3) Diné were the most skillful Native American weavers, “prized for their vivid patterns, durability and all-around practicality.

“Navajo people believed that no one was perfect but God, and thus what they created needed to have some degree of imperfection, a sort of humility. The Navajo also believed that they wove their soul into the pieces they created, so they’d implement a loose thread somewhere into their blankets. Invisible to the naked eye, the loose thread would allow their soul to escape.” (Heddels.com)

By the early 1860s Americans of European descent began to settle on and around Navajo lands creating conflict. U.S. Agents in the field negotiated multiple compromise agreements with the Indigenous People, which Congress declined to ratify. Then in April 1860, one thousand Navajo attacked Fort Defiance, located on Diné land. Only superior weaponry prevented the loss of the fort. In response the Army created a plan to remove all Navajo from their homeland. Once the threat of a Confederate invasion of New Mexico had been eliminated at the Battle of Glorietta Pass General James H. Carleton – now commander of the NM district – pivoted to fighting the Navajo. Viewing them as “the main obstacle to stability,” Carleton poured all of his energy into eliminating the “Indian problem.”

The General fixated on an area known as Bosque Redondo along the Pecos River near Fort Sumner as the site for the reservation onto which the Navajo and Mescalero Apaches would be relocated – in spite of the fact the panel of Army officers had decided it could not support such a large population. He appointed Kit Carson to lead the relocation effort against the two tribes. The Apache fell first. In the summer of 1863, Carson initiated a scorched-earth policy to break the Navajo’s will and force their surrender by destroying their crops and killing their livestock. He then returned to Fort Wingate to await their surrender.

Between August 1863 and late 1866 more than 8,500 men, women, and children were forced to leave their homes in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico and make a series of forced marches (the “Long Walk”) to Bosque Redondo Reservation. Along the way, approximately 200 Navajos died of starvation and exposure to the elements. “Some old handicapped people, and children who couldn’t make the journey, were shot on the spot, and their bodies were left behind for the crows and coyotes to eat...families jump right down [tall cliffs] because they don’t want to be shot by the enemy,” recounted descendants of some survivors.

(Long Walk Home, mural by Richard K. Yazzie, 2005)

Carleton had anticipated 3,000 to 4,000 occupants, but nearly 8,000 were interred in the 160-acre camp. Tensions ran high between Navajo and Mescalero – traditional enemies. Army rations were not sufficient, bacon was often rancid and the Pecos River water was too alkaline to be drinkable. Dysentery and other ailments spread among the population. Meanwhile, not all Navajo had surrendered with about 1,000 remaining in Monument Valley, AZ. Today they are remembered with pride by many Diné people as having “conquered the United States.”

General William T. Sherman came to investigate conditions there in 1868 and quickly realized that the “experiment” at Bosque Redondo had to be abandoned. Barboncito, one of the Diné leaders, implored Sherman to send him and his people “to no other country other than my own.” An agreement was negotiated allowing the Navajo to return to a portion of their traditional homeland in Arizona and New Mexico – and providing each family with one male and one female Churro sheep, to start breeding their own herds again.  Being good shepherds the Navajo dramatically increased their number of livestock over the next 60 years. The sheep thrived under Diné pastoralists and assumed a central role in their creativity and culture as traditional Navajo weaving evolved to utilize the special qualities of the glossy Navajo-Churro wool.

The Federal Government increased the size of their reservation and provided protection from raiding and looting of the Navajo by outsiders. The Natives sold their wool both as a raw material and woven into rugs and blankets, while increasing the number of sheep from 15,000 in the 1870s to 500,000 in the 1920s. But during the 1930s “dust-bowl drought” the government recommended the number of reservation livestock be dramatically reduced. When the Natives refused, the Feds cut the size of the herds in half by buying or taking them to send to market – or slaughtering them. First to go were the Churro, which the agents thought were “scruffy and unfit.” Those who objected were arrested, and many Navajo lost their only source of income. Diné refer to this as the “Second Long Walk.” In the late 1930s, the government established a quota system for livestock on the reservation, which the Navajo Tribal Government later took over. By 1950 pure-bred Churro survivors were to be found only in isolated Northern New Mexico Hispanic villages and remote canyons on the Navajo Native Reservation, where the Natives had hidden them from the government’s sheep slaughterers.

By 1977, the "old type" Navajo sheep had dwindled to less than 500 head, so Utah State University’s Dr. Lyle McNeal formed the Navajo Sheep Project to revitalize this breed and keep it from further depletion. Currently there are over 4,500 registered churro, 1,500 on the Navajo Reservation. El Rancho de los Golondrinas living history museum where we volunteer has about 30 “true” churros.

The Treaty of 1868 placed the Diné in a position to rebuild a sense of tribal identity. They resumed raising goats and sheep, and began exchanging weaving and silver-work with white traders. While somewhat economically independent, like most other tribes, the Navajo were still being forced to assimilate into white society. The first Bureau of Indian Affairs school opened at Fort Defiance in 1870, followed by eight others – all English only. (Many Navajos hid their children to keep them from being taken.)  Education reforms under FDR closed these institutions, replacing them with two others less militaristic.  However, one still continued to adhere to the old practices while the other had a family-like atmosphere, humane treatment, and a Navajo-based curriculum. The end result nevertheless was much language loss among the Navajo. Oil and gas discoveries in the 1950s and 1960s on the Utah portion of the reservation enriched the Nation, while at the same time contaminating water and damaging rangelands. Uranium mining, begun in the 1940s, brought additional funds to the tribal treasury, but radioactive contamination has left death and disease in mining communities.

Although not granted U.S. citizenship until 1924, many Navajo served in the First World War. In WW II 400 Navajo “Code Talkers” played a major part in winning the war in the Pacific by developing a communication system based on their Native language that was impossible for the Japanese to break. Over 3,000 Navajo also served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Women’s Army Corps. While several thousand more left the reservation to work in war-related industries. The arm patch of the Navajo Code Talkers Association says, “the language they were forbidden to speak is the same language that saved this nation.”

Despite operating three casinos (2 NM, 1 AZ) the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise has only turned over about $6 million in profits to the tribe. Many Elders on the reservation face food insecurity. Adopt-A-Native-Elder delivers food, medical supplies, firewood and other forms of support as well as marketing Navajo weaving and jewelry through its website – and is one of the local charitable organizations we now support.

After having been inculcated with the prudent wisdom of our Puritan forefathers for 70+ years we are now trying to expand our horizons with the wise sayings of the Elders of our new southwest homeland. Many are similar, “Be patient and you will attain success.” Some are clearly more applicable to this part of the world, “A rattlesnake’s tail is the most eloquent thing on earth.” Others need to be modified to fit our New England sensibilities. “One ought to give his wealth to the worthy who are going to make the best use of it” The Diné are worthy for sure. And extremely generous.  But our genetic makeup tells us, “all things in moderation.” Except, of course, moderation.