The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American tribe in the Southwestern United States, with more than 250,000 registered members. They reside in Bikeyah, a large parcel of their ancestral homeland that covers 27,000 square miles of arid desert and tree-covered mountains throughout Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
The Navajo people, also called Diné, are among the most well-known in American Indian culture. They are the subject of bestselling author Tony Hillerman’s Tribal Police mystery novels and the World War II film Windtalkers, a drama based on the true story of Native American soldiers who delivered secret communications. A memorial park and monument dedicated to these “code talkers” stands at the base of the Navajo capital city of Window Rock, and the U.S. government honored them in an official ceremony at the Pentagon in 1992.
The Native American Indian history of the Navajo people is complex, beginning with a southern migration that took place around 1400CE. As they built more permanent settlements in the Southwest, the Navajo adapted farming techniques from the Pueblo peoples. Prior to U.S. intervention they accumulated large amounts of livestock and property, which were passed down from mother to daughter according to Navajo tradition.
Much of American Indian culture has changed in the 400 years since the Navajo migration. Chiefdoms were replaced by a centralized, three-branch government with 88 delegates. While some Diné still prefer living in the eight-sided hogan, or mud hut, of their forefathers, many have moved into urban areas or built American style houses on tribal land.
The varied history of the Navajo is reflected in the Navajo Nation flag, which bears images of livestock, a hogan, a non-traditional house, and an oil derrick representing mineral deposits first discovered on tribal lands in the 1920s.
One area of Navajo life that remains constant is the tribe’s dedication to traditional arts. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Navajo produced clay pots and woven rugs made from hand dyed wool. In 1878, Atsidi Sani made a huge contribution to American Indian culture when he became the first to learn the art of silversmithing. Within a few decades, the Navajo were producing extraordinary silver bracelets, rings and necklaces.
Early Navajo silversmiths also developed the squash blossom necklace, which features a ring of delicate metal blossoms around a horseshoe-shaped pendant. Though thought to be an original product of American Indian culture, the design was actually inspired by the Spanish naja (crescent charm) and pomegranate flower trouser decorations. These Spanish artistic influences, along with the vital role of code talkers in World War II, showcase just how much the Navajo are intertwined with the people around them.