Cultural Geography of the Navajo Tribe

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8 November 2015

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      The Navajo Community represents some of the native Indian tribes in the United States of America. This group just like other Apachean tribes residing in the Southwest is part of the Athabaskan speakers. Originally, they migrated from Western Canada to occupy the largest reservation in the United States. The Navajo tribe practiced nomadic gathering and hunting living a sedentary life in the rugged expansive terrain in the Southwest. Their residences were small and scattered over the land. The date of settlement of the Navajo community in the Four Corners Area is not known with certainty but archaeological findings and researches projects settlement around 13th century.

        Surprisingly, a majority of Native American tribes diminished in population with modernization, civilization and assimilation. However, the Navajo tribe has witnessed ballooning population going well over 300,000 people. A duo of Geographers from the Los Angeles’ University of California postulates the growing Navajo population to over 300,000 members to date is as a result of culture and geography. This paper sets out to delineate the cultural geography of the Navajo tribe and what significance this has had on the community.

      In Human Geography, cultural geography concentrates on the interactions and patterns of material and non material human culture with the natural environment as well as the human-structured space (Cosgrove, 1994). There are three branches of cultural geography, namely: traditional, new and the more than representational cultural geographies (Lorimer, 2012). In American studies, traditional cultural geography is studied and links to the works of Berkeley University Geographer, Professor Carl Sauer. According to him, the interaction between communities and “natural” landscape nurtures “cultural geography”. Researchers following this convention concentrate on the various arrays of human interventions in changing the “natural” landscape. Therefore, they were mainly interested in validating material culture such as architectures/buildings, industries and agricultural technologies.

     Indeed, cultural geography has greatly influenced the increased population of the Navajo community. This is particularly so because the geographical location of the Navajo is isolated. Besides, the prevalence of cultural flexibility in which the Navajos regard themselves as the Dine, blended well with their expansion long after 1492 (Cosgrove, & Daniels, 1994). It was around this time that the Europeans started to trickle into North America. Besides, the Navajos cultural flexibility has enabled the tribe to resist assimilation into the larger white United States Culture, four centuries down the lane. Incidentally, most Native American tribes and communities became decimated in population, lost their language, homeland and cultural identity or even disappeared. However, the Navajos are strikingly exceptional. They have retained their homeland, culture, identity and the population continues to thrive.

        The exceptionality of the Navajo Community is benignantly evident in their population. The community is arguably representative of the largest Indian tribe in the United States of America. Certainly, the Cherokee Nation, which is an entirely different membership demanding diverse requirements, may contest this acclamation. Nonetheless, the burgeoning Navajo reserve has grown from 3.3 million acres in 1868 to over 17 million acres covering the three states of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona (Goode, 2002).

       So what has precipitated this meteoric success?

        In their article on the November 18 issue of the Science Journal, geographers Arthur and Diamond postulate that the mere isolation and remoteness of the Navajo Reservation in the southwestern United States played a major role. The extreme outlier of this zone cushioned the community against aggressors such as the Mexicans, the U.S armies and the Spanish. However, it can be remembered that the United States armies rounded up a majority of the Navajo Indians in 1864 and detained them in New Mexico State at Fort Sumner for four years. Still, the extreme outlier and isolation of the Navajo reservation filtered association and interdependence between the Navajo tribe and American and Spanish settlers.

      Notwithstanding, the Navajo reservation, featured a rugged, dry and dusty terrain which inhibited white settlement. It was too dry and undesirable for farmland and agriculture making white settlers seek and establish settlements elsewhere. Moreover, the absence of essential mineral resources such as oil and coal at the time of European invasion and settlement of the U.S made the region undesirable much until the 20th century when the minerals were discovered.

        Moreover, the Navajo tribe precipitated cultural geographical factors and adopted flexibly while still retaining their cultural identity, thereby circumnavigating the pitfalls of other native tribes (Jackson, 1982). The Navajo tribe changed into new practices in their expansion and occupation of the Navajo reservation. Besides, their inclusive, incorporative attitude of clans, individuals and spouses afforded them cultural identity amidst assimilation threats. For instance, they interrelated cordially with neighbors such as the Apache and the Pueblos, thereby eliminating friction and derailing wars.

       There are other historical perspectives in cultural and geographical coverage of the Navajo tribe that has led to their population increase, as well as the acreage of the Navajo Reservation. The tradition of the Navajo tribe is told as a tragic story of victimization as evidently presented in most publications on the American Indian history (Parry, 2011). Peter Iverson, a history professor at the Arizona State University posits the insufficient detail with which the Navajo are regarded. He counters that much more scholastic research must be carried out to reveal the imminent cause of their prolonged stay in power in spite of the massive cultural threats.

       Peter Iverson postulates that the federal government’s initiative to rupture the Indians land to derail communal land ownership for individual ownership marked the onset of disappearance of native tribes (Parry, 2011). The Navajo tribe reacted by successfully resisting the government’s capitalism agenda to split their land. This unified the community and ensured that it retained its cultural and geographical identity. Besides, the tribe set on acquiring additional land to expand their reservation resulting to a dramatic expansion of their dynasty. Peter Iverson emphatically chirps in that with the onset of the 19th century the tribe realized that their stay in the reservation was a long run.

        The Navajo’s cultural and social adaptations with regard to their topography were flexible. Initially, they resisted the American government’s sponsored education. This is because the education was varied on the extreme and went against the beliefs of the Navajo tribe (Jett, 1992). For instance, the boarding schools were savagely hostile to the Navajo schooling kids. Indeed, this was ingeniously tailored to help rehabilitate the Navajo young scholars into the white American culture (Parry, 2011). However, various cultural, social and geographical developments in the region led to the tribe to flexibly accommodate and adopt new practices. For instance, the 1930 federal program decimated the pastoralist, nomadic and sedentary life in which the Navajo led by taking away their livestock. In countenance, the Navajo adopted the new engagements but yet retained their cultural identity.

        Another cultural geographic factor that has led to the meteoric growth and expansion of the Navajo tribe over the years, in spite of cultural assimilation threats is their rich cultural vitality. According to the dual, over a half of the population in the Navajo tribe speaks perfect native language (Jones, 2012). The large population of Navajo members speaking their native language has enormously contributed towards cultural vitality. Nevertheless, the culture is more fragile at present that it has been projected. This is because; with the government sponsored schooling the younger Navajo members cannot speak their language fluently.

       Besides, the Navajo tribe is more probable to external influences at present than before. This is because the Navajo reservation has witnessed the construction of railroad and modernized roads skirting through their lands. Consequently, the region is opening up and awakening from isolation well after 1920 (Parry, 2011). Moreover, in spite of the Navajo confrontations with the government in the 1880s, the present influence of Christian Missionaries has actively influenced their culture.

       The Navajo tribe pride in their flexibility to adopt and incorporate new features into their culture. This characteristic is well illustrated in their architectural designs, weaving, silverwork, craftsmanship and drawings. For example, among the commonly featured designs in the Navajo arts is the squash blossom pattern. It involves a crescent shaped pendant which is native to the Islamic countries. It is believed to have arrived in the Navajo reservation with the Spanish.

        Today, the Navajo culture constitutes a blended old tradition with adapted practices and technologies. The adapted practices are traceable to ancient times and reflect in the tribes mythology. Their oral traditions posit a semi nomadic life integrated with hunting and gathering. As a result, the oral traditions foreshadow perpetual travelling by their ancestors before settling in their current Navajo Reservation. The Navajo today practice farming as an adopted practice to ensure their survival. This practice just like so many other cultures was adopted from the Spanish settlers who settled in their reservation (Parry, 2011). They learn to rear animals such as sheep herding and weaving blankets from wool. Their adaptation tactics have seen the Navajo tribe become dexterous and perfect their skills. Most of the intricately weave patterns in blankets across the world traces top the American Indian Navajo tribe.

        In the nineteenth century, the Navajo tribe conducted conventional raids in their neighbors for animals, food and captives a trait that earned them the noun ravage (Parry, 2011). This lifestyle was quite common amongst traditional communities implying that the Navajo tribe merely adopted the practice from their neighbors. In spite of the cultural adaptations, the Navajo tribe reclined to maintaining their traditions. According to James F rooks, the Navajo assumed those practices that enhanced their survival and protection.

        Increased settlement of white settlers in the Dine coupled with transcontinental railroad developments stirred a hostile, brutal and violent resistance from the Navajo tribe in their reservation. Consequently, the U.S armies were called upon to quell the situation and detain the agitators. This led to the rounding up of Navajos and their eventual incarceration at Fort Summer, New Mexico. The U.S army applied ruthless combat methods such as the scorched earth policy aimed at weakening the Navajo. For instance, they reduced the Navajo livestock which was their main source of income and livelihood. The army barraged the Navajo out of their reservation striking their most hideous cavern, the Canyon de Chelly. Peter Iverson states categorically that the number of Navajo clansmen arrested and incarcerated as at 1864 totaled to about 8,000. These people had surrendered to the American soldiers due to hunger and thirst. In fact, Iverson posits that they endured the “Long Walk” along the Pecos River to the fort. Nevertheless, a boisterous and poignantly adamant Navajo population totaling to about 5,000 Navajo members sought refuge in the Gray Mountain, Black Messa, Grand Canyon and the Wupatki hideous points (Parry, 2011).

        The long annexation of Navajo led to the 1868, peace treaty signed by chief Manuelito and other clansmen with the federal government of the United States. This allowed the release and return home of the arrested and detained Navajo members. In addition, the Navajo acquired an expansive Navajo reservation stretching over 3.5 million acres of land. It straddles the entire New Mexico and Arizona border line through Utah and on to Colorado (Parry, 2011). The annexation and detention of the Navajo did not alter their cultural practices and identity. The continued herding their sheep and their craftsmanship weaving more and more blankets. In addition, they brought with them additional practices such as silversmithing earlier adopted from their neighbors, the Spaniards. The Navajo jewelry is known across the world and over and especially the turquoise and silver jewelry.

        The discovery of an underneath mega oil reserve in Navajo Reservation, in the 1920s, did not assail the tribe. The tribe organized the Navajo Tribe Council to provide strategic and organized leasing of contracts. This council operated independently until 1991 when the federal United States government intervened and reorganized the council to accommodate a trilateral government (Parry, 2011). It constituted of an executive, a legislature and a judiciary similar to the federal American government. This depicts another one of Navajo community’s cultural adaptability and flexibility. The council is duly constituted by a delegation of 88 people representative of 110 communities.

      Moreover, the Navajo council and government constitute a Navajo Nation Flag. The colorful emblem depicts the topography of the Navajo reservation represented in copper. In addition, the flag features the native reservation border of 1868 presented in a dark brown color. Still, the flag bears a quad composure of the sacred mountains at their cardinal directions while an enveloping rainbow illustrates the sovereignty of the Navajo nation (Parry, 2011). The solar captured above two animals and cornstalks depict the Navajo indigenous economy. Moreover, an oil derrick featured between a modern house and a Hogan is indicative of another feature of their economy.

      In conclusion, cultural geography as a branch of human geography postulates the In Human Geography the interactions and patterns between human culture and the natural environment. This involves the study of the material and non-material associations between the external environment and the people who live in that environment, that is the human-structured space. Culture geography manifests acutely in the Navajo nation. It trails the Navajo tribe explaining their stoic existence, burgeoning and inflationing population amidst occasions that threaten their cultural identity (Parry, 2011). This native community has managed to survive primarily because it practiced flexibility in its culture. The community adopted new elements and practices into its way of life, enriching, safeguarding and advancing its culture and vitality. The Navajo reservation topography has shied potential threats and invasions keeping and retaining the tribe’s identity.


Cosgrove, D. E., & Daniels, S. (1994-1988). The Iconography of landscape: essays on the symbolic representation, design, and use of past environments. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press.

Goode, S. (2002, October 29). Powwow Blends Sacred and Secular: Thousands Attended the First Powwow on the National Mall to Celebrate the National Museum of the American Indian and to Immerse Themselves in Cultural Traditions. (Nation: American Indian Culture). Insight on the News, 8, 13-22.

Jackson, J. (1982). Navajo Architecture: Forms, History, Distributions And , (Tucson: University Of Arizona Press, 1981. Pp. Xx+289. $37a50 And $14a95 Softback). Journal of Historical Geography, 8(4), 428-429.

Jett, S. C. (1992). An Introduction To Navajo Sacred Places. Journal of Cultural Geography, 13(1), 29-39.

Jones, L. (2012). Geography and memory: explorations in identity, place and becoming. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Parry, W. (2011, November 17). Tribal Fates: Why the Navajo Have Succeeded. Retrieved November 30, 2013, from

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