Friday, March 2, 2012

Description of Navaho Reservation Region


The Navaho reservation comprises an extensive area in the extreme northeastern part of Arizona and the northwestern corner of New Mexico. The total area is over 11,000 square miles, of which about 650 square miles are in New Mexico; but it would be difficult to find a region of equal size and with an equal population where so large a proportion of the land is so nearly worthless. This condition has had an important effect on the people and their arts, and especially on their houses.
The region may be roughly characterized as a vast sandy plain, arid in the extreme; or rather as two such plains, separated by a chain of mountains running northwest and southeast. In the southern part of the reservation this mountain range is known as the Choiskai mountains, and here the top is flat and mesa-like in character, dotted with little lakes and covered with giant pines, which in the summer give it a park-like aspect. The general elevation of this plateau is a little less than 9,000 feet above the sea and about 3,000 feet above the valleys or plains east and west of it.
The continuation of the range to the northwest, separated from the Choiskai only by a high pass, closed in winter by deep snow, is known as the Tunicha mountains. The summit here is a sharp ridge with pronounced slopes and is from 9,000 to 9,400 feet high. On the west there are numerous small streams, which, rising near the summit, course down the steep slopes and finally discharge through Canyon Chelly into the great Chinlee valley, which is the western of the two valleys referred to above. The eastern slope is more pronounced than the western, and its streams are so small and insignificant that they are hardly worthy of mention. Navajo Indian pictures
Still farther to the northwest, and not separated from the Tunicha except by a drawing in or narrowing of the mountain mass, with no depression of the summit, is another part of the same range, which bears a separate name. It is known as the Lukachukai mountains. Here something of the range character is lost, and the uplift becomes a confused mass, a single great pile, with a maximum altitude of over 9,400 feet.
Northwest of this point the range breaks down into Chinlee valley, but directly to the north is another uplift, called the Carriso mountains. It is a single mass, separated from the range proper by a comparatively low area of less than 7,000 feet altitude, while the Carriso itself is over 9,400 feet above the sea.
The western and northwestern parts of the reservation might also be classed as mountainous. Here there is a great mesa or elevated table-land, cut and gashed by innumerable canyons and gorges, and with a general elevation of 7,500 to 8,000 feet. Throughout nearly its whole extent it is impassable to wagons.
The valleys to which reference has been made are the Chinlee on the west and the Chaco on the east of the principal mountain range described. Both run nearly due north, and the former has a fall of about 2,000 feet from the divide, near the southern reservation line, to the northern boundary, a distance of about 85 miles. Chaco valley heads farther south and discharges into San Juan river within the reservation. It has less fall than the Chinlee. Both valleys are shown on the maps as occupied by rivers, but the rivers materialize only after heavy rains; at all other times there is only a dry, sandy channel. Chaco “river,” which heads in the continental divide, carries more water than the Chelly, which occupies Chinlee valley, and is more often found to contain a little water. The valleys have a general altitude of 5,000 to 6,000 feet above the sea.
The base of the mountain range has an average breadth of only 12 or 15 miles, and it is a pronounced impediment to east-and-west communication. It is probably on this account that the Navaho are divided into two principal bands, under different leaders. Those of one band seldom travel in the territory of the other. The Navaho of the west, formerly commanded by old Ganamucho (now deceased), have all the advantages in regard to location, and on the whole are a finer body of men than those of the east.
On the west the mountains break down into Chinlee valley by a gradual slope—near the summit quite steep, then running out into table-lands and long foothills. This region is perhaps the most desirable on the reservation, and is thickly inhabited. On the east the mountains descend by almost a single slope to the edge of the approximately flat Chaco valley. In a few rods the traveler passes from the comparatively fertile mountain region into the flat, extremely arid valley country, and in 50 or 60 miles’ travel after leaving the mountains he will not find wood enough to make his camp fire, nor, unless he moves rapidly, water enough to carry his horses over the intervening distance.
Throughout the whole region great scarcity of water prevails; in the large valleys during most of the year there is none, and it is only in the mountain districts that there is a permanent supply; but there life is almost impossible during the winter. This condition has had much to do with the migratory habits of the people, or rather with their frequent moving from place to place; for they are not a nomadic people as the term is usually employed. This is one of the reasons why the Navaho have no fixed habitations.
San Juan river forms a short section of the northeastern boundary of the Navaho country, and this is practically the only perennial stream to which they have access. It is of little use to them, however, as there are no tributaries from the southern or reservation side, other than the Chaco and Chelly “rivers,” which are really merely drainage channels and are dry during most of the year. The eastern slope of the mountain range gives rise to no streams, and the foot of the range 479on that side is as dry and waterless as the valley itself. One may travel for 20 miles over this valley and not find a drop of water. Except at Sulphur springs, warm volcanic springs about 30 miles south of the San Juan, the ordinary traveler will not find sufficient water between the foot of the mountains and the river, a distance of over 50 miles. Such is the character of Chaco valley. But the Indians know of a few holes and pockets in this region which yield a scanty supply of water during parts of the year, and somewhere in the vicinity of these pockets will be found a hogán or two.
Chaco wash or river, like most of the large drainage channels of this country, has a permanent underflow, and by digging wells in the dry, sandy bed it is often possible to obtain a limited supply of water. This is well known to the Navaho, and 90 per cent of the houses of this region are located within reach of the wash, whence the supply of water which the Navaho deems essential is procured.
On the western slope of the mountains and in the canyons and cliffs of the high table-lands which form the western part of the reservation, the water supply, while still scanty, is abundant as compared with the eastern part. In the mountains themselves there are numerous small streams, some of which carry water nearly all the year; while here and there throughout the region are many diminutive springs almost or quite permanent in character. Most of the little streams rise near the crest of the mountains and, flowing westward, are collected in a deep canyon cut in the western slope, whence the water is discharged into Chinlee valley, and traversing its length in the so-called Rio de Chelly, finally reaches San Juan river. But while these little streams are fairly permanent up in the mountains, their combined flow is seldom sufficient, except in times of flood, to reach the mouth of Canyon Chelly and Chinlee valley. However, here, as in the Chaco, there is an underflow, which the Indians know how to utilize and from which they can always obtain a sufficient supply of potable water.
The whole Navaho country lies within what the geologists term the Plateau region, and its topography is dictated by the peculiar characteristics of that area. The soft sandstone measures, which are its most pronounced feature, appear to lie perfectly horizontal, but in fact the strata have a slight, although persistent dip. From this peculiarity it comes about that each stratum extends for miles with an unbroken sameness which is extremely monotonous to the traveler; but finally its dip carries it under the next succeeding stratum, whose edge appears as an escarpment or cliff, and this in turn stretches out flat and uninteresting to the horizon. To the eye it appears an ideal country for traveling, but only a very slight experience is necessary to reveal its deceptiveness. Everywhere the flat mesas are cut and seamed by gorges and narrow canyons, sometimes impassable even to a horse. Except along a few routes which have been established here and there, wagon travel is extremely difficult and often impossible. It 480is not unusual for a wagon to travel 50 or 60 miles between two points not 20 miles distant from each other.
The high mountain districts are characterized by a heavy growth of giant pines, with firs and spruce in the highest parts, and many groves of scrub oak. The pines are abundant and make excellent lumber. Going downward they merge into piñons, useful for firewood but valueless as timber, and these in turn give place to junipers and cedars, which are found everywhere throughout the foothills and on the high mesa lands. The valleys proper, and the low mesas which bound them, are generally destitute of trees; their vegetation consists only of sagebrush and greasewood, with a scanty growth of grass in favorable spots.
To the traveler in the valley the country appears to consist of sandy plains bounded in the distance by rocky cliffs. When he ascends to the higher plateaus he views a wide landscape of undulating plain studded with wooded hills, while from the mountain summits he looks down upon a land which appears to be everywhere cut into a network of jagged canyons—a confused tangle of cliffs and gorges without system.
For a few weeks in early summer the table-lands are seen in their most attractive guise. The open stretches of the mesas are carpeted with verdure almost hidden under a profusion of flowers. The gray and dusty sagebrush takes on a tinge of green, and even the prickly and repulsive greasewood clothes itself with a multitude of golden blossoms. Cacti of various kinds vie with one another in producing the most brilliant flowers, odorless but gorgeous. But in a few weeks all this brightness fades and the country resumes the colorless monotonous aspect which characterizes it.
July and August and sometimes part of September comprise the rainy season. This period is marked by sudden heavy showers of short duration, and the sandy soil absorbs sufficient moisture to nourish the grass and herbage for a time; but most of the water finds its way directly into deep-cut channels and thence in heavy torrents to the deep canyons of the San Juan and the Colorado, where it is lost. A small portion of the rainfall and much of the snow water percolates the soil and the porous sandstones which compose the region, and issues in small springs along the edges of the mesas and in the little canyons; but these last only a few months, and they fail in the time of greatest need—in the hot summer days when the grass is dry and brittle and the whole country is parched.
The direct dependence of the savage on nature as he finds it is nowhere better illustrated than on the Navaho reservation. In the three essentials of land, water, and vegetation, his country is not an ideal one. The hard conditions under which he lives have acted directly on his arts and industries, on his habits and customs, and also on his mind and his mythology. In one respect only has he an advantage: he is blessed with a climate which acts in a measure as an offset to the other conditions and enables him to lead a life which is on the whole not onerous.
In these dry elevated regions the heat is never oppressive in the day and the nights are always cool. Day temperatures of 120° or more are not uncommon in the valleys in July and August, but the humidity is so slight that such high readings do not produce the discomfort the figures might imply. In his calico shirt and breeches the Navaho is quite comfortable, and in the cool of the evening and night he has but to add a blanket, which he always has within reach. The range between the day and night temperature in summer is often very great, but the houses are constructed to meet these conditions; they are cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather.
The extreme dryness of the air has another advantage from the Indian point of view, in that it permits a certain degree of filthiness. This seems inseparable from the Indian character, but it would be impossible in a moist climate; even under the favorable conditions of the plateau country many of the tribes are periodically decimated by smallpox.