CUSTOMS OF THE NAVAJO (NAVAHO) PEOPLE
The customs of a people, which are to a certain extent the product of the country in which they live, in turn have a pronounced effect on their habitations. New Mexico and Arizona came into the possession of the United States in 1846, and prior to that time the Navaho lived chiefly by war and plunder. The Mexican settlers along the Rio Grande and the Pueblo Indians of the same region were the principal contributors to their welfare, and the thousands of sheep and horses which were stolen from these people formed the nucleus or starting point of the large flocks and herds which constitute the wealth of the Navaho today.
The Navajo reservation is better suited for the raising of sheep than for anything else, and the step from the life of a warrior and hunter to that of a shepherd is not a long one, nor a hard one to take. Under the stress of necessity the Navajo became a peaceable pastoral tribe, living by their flocks and herds, and practicing horticulture only in an extremely limited and precarious way. Under modern conditions they are slowly developing into an agricultural tribe, and this development has already progressed far enough to materially affect their house structures; but in a general way it may be said that they are a pastoral people, and their habits have been dictated largely by that mode of life.
As a rule, however, each hogán stands by itself, and it is usually hidden away so effectually that the traveler who is not familiar with the customs of the people might journey for days and not see half a dozen of them. The spot chosen for a dwelling place is either some sheltered nook in a mesa or a southward slope on the edge of a piñon grove near a good fuel supply and not too far from water. A house is very seldom built close to a spring—perhaps a survival of the habit which prevailed when the people were a hunting tribe and kept away from the water holes in order not to disturb the game which frequented them.
So prevalent is this custom of placing the houses in out-of-the-way places that the casual traveler receives the impression that the region over which he has passed is practically uninhabited. He may, perhaps, meet half a dozen Indians in a day, or he may meet none, and at sunset when he camps he will probably hear the bark of a dog in the distance, or he may notice on the mountain side a pillar of smoke like that arising from his own camp fire. This is all that he will see to indicate the existence of other life than his own, yet the tribe numbers over 12,000 souls, and it is probable that there was no time during the day when there were not several pairs of eyes looking at him, and were he to fire his gun the report would probably be heard by several hundred persons. Probably this custom of half-concealed habitations is a 4survival from the time when the Navaho were warriors and plunderers, and lived in momentary expectation of reprisals on the part of their victims.
Although the average Navaho family may be said to be in almost constant movement, they are not at all nomads, yet the term has frequently been applied to them. Each family moves back and forth within a certain circumscribed area, and the smallness of this area is one of the most remarkable things in Navaho life.
Ninety per cent of the Navaho one meets on the reservation are mounted and usually riding at a gallop, apparently bent on some important business at a far-distant point. But a closer acquaintance will develop the fact that there are many grown men in the tribe who are entirely ignorant of the country 30 or 40 miles from where they were born. It is an exceptional Navaho who knows the country well 60 miles about his birthplace, or the place where he may be living, usually the same thing. It is doubtful whether there are more than a few dozens of Navaho living west of the mountains who know anything of the country to the east, and vice versa. This ignorance of what we may term the immediate vicinity of a place is experienced by every traveler who has occasion to make a long journey over the reservation and employs a guide. But he discovers it only by personal experience, for the guide will seldom admit his ignorance and travels on, depending on meeting other Indians living in that vicinity who will give him the required local knowledge. This peculiar trait illustrates the extremely restricted area within which each “nomad” family lives.
Now and then one may meet a family moving, for such movements are quite common. Usually each family has at least two locations—not definite places, but regions—and they move from one to the other as the necessity arises. In such cases they take everything with them, including flocks of sheep and goats and herds of ponies and cattle, if they possess any. The qasçíŋ, as the head of the family is called, drives the ponies and cattle, the former a degenerate lot of little beasts not much larger than an ass, but capable of carrying a man in an emergency 100 miles in a day. He carries his arms, for the coyotes trouble the sheep at night, two or three blankets, and a buckskin on his saddle, but nothing more. It is his special duty to keep the ponies moving and in the trail. Following him comes a flock of sheep and goats, bleating and nibbling at the bushes and grass as they slowly trot along, urged by the dust-begrimed squaw and her children. Several of the more tractable ponies carry packs of household effects stuffed into buckskin and cotton bags or wrapped in blankets, a little corn for food, the rude blanket loom of the woman, baskets, and wicker bottles, and perhaps a scion of the house, too young to walk, perched on top of all. Such a caravan is always accompanied by several dogs—curs of unknown breed, but invaluable aids to the women and children in herding the flocks.485
Under the Navaho system descent is in the female line. The children belong to the mother, and likewise practically all property except horses and cattle. Sheep and goats belong exclusively to her, and the head of the family can not sell a sheep to a passing traveler without first obtaining the consent and approval of his wife. Hence in such a movement as that sketched above the flocks are looked after by the women, while under normal circumstances, when the family has settled down and is at home, the care of the flocks devolves almost entirely on the little children, so young sometimes that they can just toddle about.
The waters are usually regarded by the Navaho as the common property of the tribe, but the cultivable lands in the vicinity are held by the individuals and families as exclusively their own. Their flocks occupy all the surrounding pasture, so that virtually many of the springs come to be regarded as the property of the people who plant nearest to them.
In early times, when the organization of the people into clans was more clearly defined, a section of territory was parceled out and held as a clan ground, and some of the existing clans took their names from such localities. Legends are still current among the old men of these early days before the introduction of sheep and goats and horses by the Spaniards, when the people lived by the chase and on wild fruits, grass seeds, and piñon nuts, and such supplies as they could plunder from their neighbors. Indian corn or maize was apparently known from the earliest time, but so long as plunder and the supply of game continued sufficient, little effort was made to grow it. Later as the tribe increased and game became scarcer, the cultivation of corn increased, but until ten years ago more grain was obtained in trade from the Pueblos than was grown in the Navaho country. There are now no defined boundaries to the ancient clan lands, but they are still recognized in a general way and such a tract is spoken of as “my mother’s land.”
Families cling to certain localities and sections not far apart, and when compelled, by reason of failure of springs or too close cropping of the grass, to go to other neighborhoods, they do not move to the new place as a matter of right, but of courtesy; and the movement is never undertaken until satisfactory arrangements have been concluded with the families already living there.
Some of the Pueblo tribes, the Hopi or Moki, for example, have been subjected to much the same conditions as the Navaho; but in this case similarity of conditions has produced very dissimilar results, that is, as regards house structures. The reasons, however, are obvious, and lie principally in two distinct causes—antecedent habits and personal character. The Navaho are a fine, athletic race of men, living a free and independent life. They are without chiefs, in the ordinary meaning of the term, although there are men in the tribe who occupy prominent positions and exercise a kind of semiauthority—chiefs by 486courtesy, as it were. Ever since we have known them, now some three hundred years, they have been hunters, warriors, and robbers. When hunting, war, and robbery ceased to supply them with the necessaries of life they naturally became a pastoral people, for the flocks and the pasture lands were already at hand. It is only within the last few years that they have shown indication of developing into an agricultural people. With their previous habits only temporary habitations were possible, and when they became a pastoral people the same habitations served their purpose better than any other. The hogáns of ten or fifteen years ago, and to a certain extent the hogáns of today, are practically the same as they were three hundred years ago. There has been no reason for a change and consequently no change has been made.
On the other hand, the Hopi came into the country with a comparatively elaborate system of house structures, previously developed elsewhere. They are an undersized, puny race, content with what they have and asking only to be left alone. They are in no sense warriors, although there is no doubt that they have fought bitterly among themselves within historic times. Following the Spanish invasion they also received sheep and goats, but their previous habits prevented them from becoming a pastoral people like the Navaho, and their main reliance for food is, and always was, on horticultural products. Living, as they did, in fixed habitations and in communities, the pastoral life was impossible to them, and their marked timidity would prevent the abandonment of their communal villages.
Under modern conditions these two methods of life, strongly opposed to each other, although practiced in the same region and under the same physical conditions, are drawing a little closer together. Under the strong protecting arm of the Government the Hopi are losing a little of their timidity and are gradually abandoning their villages on the mesa summits and building individual houses in the valleys below. Incidentally they are increasing their flocks and herds. On the other hand, under the stress of modern conditions, the Navaho are surely, although very slowly, turning to agriculture, and apparently show some disposition to form small communities. Their flocks of sheep and goats have decreased materially in the last few years, a decrease due largely to the removal of the duty on wool and the consequent low price they obtained from the traders for this staple article of their trade.
In both cases the result, so far as the house structures are concerned, is the same. The houses of the people, the homes “we have always had,” as they put it, are rapidly disappearing, and the examples left today are more or less influenced by ideas derived from the whites. Among the Navaho such contact has been very slight, but it has been sufficient to introduce new methods of construction and in fact new structures, and it is doubtful whether the process and the ritual later described could be found in their entirety today. Many of the modern houses of the Navaho in the mountainous and timbered regions are built of logs, sometimes hewn. These houses are nearly always rectangular 487in shape, as also are all of those built of stone masonry in the valley regions.
There is a peculiar custom of the Navaho which should be mentioned, as it has had an important influence on the house-building practices of the tribe, and has done much to prevent the erection of permanent abodes. This is the idea of the tcĭ’ndi hogán. When a person dies within a house the rafters are pulled down over the remains and the place is usually set on fire. After that nothing would induce a Navaho to touch a piece of the wood or even approach the immediate vicinity of the place; even years afterward such places are recognized and avoided. The place and all about it are the especial locale of the tcĭ’ndi, the shade or “spirit” of the departed. These shades are not necessarily malevolent, but they are regarded as inclined to resent any intrusion or the taking of any liberties with them or their belongings. If one little stick of wood from a tcĭ’ndi hogán is used about a camp fire, as is sometimes done by irreverent whites, not an Indian will approach the fire; and not even under the greatest necessity would they partake of the food prepared by its aid.
This custom has had much to do with the temporary character of the Navaho houses, for men are born to die, and they must die somewhere. There are thousands of these tcĭ´ndihogáns scattered over the reservation, not always recognizable as such by whites, but the Navaho is unerring in identifying them. He was not inclined to build a fine house when he might have to abandon it at any time, although in the modern houses alluded to above he has overcome this difficulty in a very simple and direct way. When a person is about to die in one of the stone or log houses referred to he is carried outside and allowed to die in the open air. The house is thus preserved.