Diné Bikeyah (continued)

The 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 Fifth World and creating humans, who they called Diné or "the people". (more)

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 and modern physicists are aligned, at least in theory, with the storytellers. Recent discoveries in quantum physics known as "string theory" postulate that the storytellers' version of the Diné creation story could be supported by modern 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 dimensions?

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). These peaceful 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 Comanche 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 traded with other 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 economy. (more)

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 sharing 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 looms. (more)

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 to 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 a fleece 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. (more) 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 economy.

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 culminating 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 Sheep Project. Because 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 among 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 maintain their unique culture with more than 80% of their people speaking Diné.


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