Lords of the Desert
Who are the Diné, those who call themselves "the people"? Where did
they come from? Where did they live before Dinétah, the sacred land between
the Four Peaks? What do archeologists, storytellers and even mystics say?
There are many questions and certainly more answers than questions.
Archeologists say that the Navajo crossed the Bering Straits from Asia on what
was once a land mass. They say the Diné must be related to the people of Central
Asia because of their nomadic tendencies, sand paintings, Athabaskan language
and bone structure. Some say that the Diné "appeared" in the San Juan
Basin around the 13th century at about the time of the disappearance of the mysterious
Anasazi. Others say there is evidence that there were small bands of Athabaskan
speaking tribes in the San Juan Basin long before the Anasazi disappeared in
the 13th century. (more)
The Diné Storytellers have another history. They say
the Diné have always been in Dinétah. That the First
People came out of the earth in the La Plata Mountains
of southwest Colorado near the Four Corners on the Colorado Plateau northeast
of the San Juan Basin. These Storytellers speak of the emergence of the Yeis
(Holy People) who traveled through four worlds before arriving here to the
World and creating humans, who they called Diné or "the people".
This Creation Story is incomprehensible to most people
outside the Diné culture.However, as extraordinary
as this story may seem to the western mind, mathematicians
modern physicists are aligned, at least in theory, with the storytellers.
discoveries in quantum physics known as "string theory" postulate
that the storytellers' version of the Diné creation story could be supported
physics and mathematics in the following way. According to string theory
our world is made up of 12 dimensions. The
storytellers tell us that the Yei came to the Fifth World through four "rooms" each
with three layers (dimensions), This could be construed to equal 12 dimensions.
Is it not possible that we humans live in a "room" with three
Whatever the genesis of the dine' in the San
Juan Basin, their emergence, like the disappearance
of the Anasazi, remains a mystery.
What we do know is that
early Spanish explorers distinguished the Diné from other Athabaskan tribes,
like the Apache, by calling the Diné of the San Juan Basin "Apache de
Nabaju' " or "farming
Apache" after having discovered huge cornfields growing in the moist sands
in the San Juan Basin. Nabaju, which means "great planted fields" in
Spanish, became the name we now know as Navajo. (more) The "Nabaju" were
migrant farmers, hunters and gathers who moved freely across the Colorado Plateau
and the San Juan Basin planting corn and
beans and squash on the move (and coming back to reap the harvest, if any).
people were quite different than the Navajo of the 19th century, who, having
been attacked and cornered, came to be known by the Spanish and American settlers
as great warriors and raiders.
As the Spanish conquistadors moved north in
their search for the "city of
gold" they paved the way for settlers who pushed the Navajo off their
land in the San Juan Basin and onto the sacred hunting grounds of the Ute and
tribes. These tribes attacked the Navajo (and the Spaniards) with such a vengance
that the Navajo were forced into the canyons of northeast Arizona and northwest
New Mexico. (more). From here they began raiding Spanish settlers to get horses
for hunting and fighting. They took sheep for meat and wool. They raided and
tribes. It was only a matter of time until they became known among the Spanish
and other tribes as, in the words of one Spanish historian, the "Lords
of the Desert".
Shepherds in the Sand
By the early 19th century the Navajo had assimilated
some of the customs and lifestyle of the Pueblo Indians
and were living primarily in the mountains and
valleys of northeastern Arizona around Canyon De Chelly weaving, farming, growing
peaches and tending their sheep who were fast becoming a mainstay of their
Sheep, like the horse, had radically changed
the Navajo lifestyle. The Churro sheep
brought to the Americas by the Spaniards
in the 16th century were especially
suited for the mountainous desert of the American Southwest. Coronado brought
sheep from southern Spain in 1540 and in 1598 Juan de Onate brought more sheep.
These sheep were a blessing to the Diné in more than an economic way. In addition
to being a package of food, clothing, and bedding, the sheep awakened in the
Diné the genetic memory of their nomadic past when they roamed the San Juan
Basin hunting, planting and gathering.
The Churro sheep taken from the Spanish
transformed the Diné from hunters and
gatherers to shepherds and farmers, providing
them with the highest quality most
durable wool for weaving cloth and blankets. The Churro sheep were a hardy
lot suitable for desert grazing. They were
so highly prized for their high quality
wool and tasty lean meat that the Navajo did not allow the crossing of their
sheep with the lesser merino sheep of Mexico. The spirit of these sheep, in
their own natural spirit of adventure and longing for new places with the ancestral
memory of the Navajo awakened the deep longing among the Diné to move about!
Soon the Navajo (following the sheep who had in a sense domesticated them),
were scattered in locations throughout
Northern Arizona and New Mexico where they
still live today.
During this transition period from hunters and gathers
to shepherds, the Diné were still on the move and they
used small "portable" looms that could
be easily moved from one location to another. It was not until they finally
settled into the Canyon de Chelly that the Diné, who
had learned to weave grasses and
cotton from the Pueblo tribes before the Spanish chased them out of the San
Juan Basin, now wove with wool on larger more permanent
Navajo philosophy, spirituality and sheep are woven together
like wool in a weaving. It is said that Spider Woman
taught the Diné songs, prayers and techniques
weave the wool of the sheep on looms built by Spider Man. (more)
The first loom was of sky and earth cords woven with sunlight, lightning, white
shell, and crystal.
Within a century herding and weaving became a major
economic asset for the Navajo. The Churro sheep offered
admired by collectors and traders for its luster,
silky feel, variety of natural colors and durability. Glossy Churro fibers
were made of the finest natural colors including red,
tan, apricot, beige, orange,
vanilla, brown, black, grey and rarely, blue. The wool was extremely durable
and readily absorbed indigo and native vegetal dyes allowing the Diné weavers
to create textiles with exceptional luster, fine texture and durability.
Even the raw wool itself was in high demand for coats
and clothing in the eastern United States.
By the mid-19th century the Navajo had completely integrated
the Churro sheep into their lifestyle. Their herds
were estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Families had pet sheep and children were given a lamb to care for as a rite
of passage. Life was good. The Navajo prospered during
this period despite frequent
warfare with the Spanish-Americans and other tribes. The Navajo population
doubled to more than 15,000 and herding became the
most important component of the Navajo
This all changed in 1848 when the Mexicans seceded the Navajo land to the
Americans. For the next 15 years American settlers encroached on Navajo land
in the Navajo war of 1863-64. After killing or capturing thousands of Navajo,
burning their hogans and crops, and killing their sheep, the surviving 8,000
Navajo were forced to surrender and made to walk 300 miles to Bosque Redondo
(Ft Sumner) in eastern New Mexico where 2,000 died. This is remembered among "the
people" as The Long Walk.
After 4 years of incarceration these proud people signed
a treaty with the United States in 1868 that granted
them a small portion of their former homeland. The
land to which they returned had been decimated by war and neglect. Yet the
Navajo, exhibiting the character and ability to adapt
that had allowed them to survive
the Spanish invasion, made remarkable economic strides and achieved a level
of prosperity which they had never know before. They
united as a people and formed
their own nation. They returned to self sufficient lives of farming, herding
sheep and weaving. Their herds multiplied and they became known as extraordinary
weavers and beautiful silversmiths. Trading textiles and jewelry became an
abundant way of life.
Adversity struck again in the early
1900s when the United State government,
through slaughter and the introduction
of 'better breeds' destroyed
all but a few of
the Churro sheep in an effort to upgrade the quality of sheep on the Navajo
lands. Drought and market forces
also effected the sheep herds
in the 1930s. Again the
federal government tried to eliminate the Churros and replace them with less
suitable animals. Fortunately, some of the original bloodlines escaped annihilation
and remained relatively pure via small groups surviving in hidden canyons
of the Four Corners area.
In the mid-1970s Dr. Lyle McNeal
of Utah State University brought
together a flock of these Churros
under the care of the Navajo-Churro
of his efforts the breed was saved from extinction. Today the breed is
flourishing with more than 1,000 head of sheep registered
with and recognized by the
American Sheep Industry as the Navajo-Churro genotype.
Navajo weavings are collected throughout the world and are recognized as
the finest art work of the 20th century. And, of course, the wool of the
original Churro sheep commands the highest price of any Navajo weavings.
Today, the Diné have more than quadrupled the size of the original reservation
with 200,000 inhabitants living on more than 15 million acres, the largest
native american reserve in the US. Most importantly they have managed to
unique culture with more than 80% of their people speaking Diné.