Frances Sanita, Arizona Writers Project, W.P.A.

Covering an area of 25,000 square miles of sunburnt, sandy desert, grizzly, phantom-like cacti, varicolored, naked buttes and hills, and blackened lava beds of extinct volcanoes, the Navajo Indian Reservation — the largest in the United States — is a land of enchantment. It covers a vast area through northern Arizona’s Coconino, Navajo and Apache counties and far into New Mexico. Here the Navajo who calls himself the “Aristocrat of the Southwest,” was first seen by white man when Coronado made his journey through their country in 1540.

The Navajo belongs to the wide-spread Athapascan linguistic group, and like most of the Athapascans, call themselves Diné, meaning “the people.” How the term came to be applied to them is not known, although there are two or three theories accounting for it. One theory derives the term from the Tewa words “Navajo” meaning a large area of tillable land. In 1630 Alonza Benavides after writing an account of the Gila Apache spoke of a northern group whom he called the “Apaches de Navajo.” The term was not applied to the tribe, but to the territory they occupied. He believed that Navajo meant “great planted fields” and there is evidence that at the time of the earliest Spanish contacts the Navajo did cultivate the land, use irrigation and erect huge granaries for their crops.

From the first contact with Spanish explorers until the tribe was pacified by Kit Carson in 1863, the Navajos were a warlike group, acquiring cattle, horses, sheep and other goods by raids against the Pueblos and Mexican settlements.

Photograph by Simeon Schwemberger
Navajo baseball players, identified simply as “11 older boys,” pose for a team photo. | Simeon Schwemberger 

When the Spaniards conquered the pueblo dwellers in 1692, the Navajos fled to Canyon de Chelly, where they lived in comparative peace for more than a century. As they increased in number, they grew bolder and resumed their old raiding. After acquisition of this territory from Mexico, two treaties of peace were made with the Navajo. One with Doniphan, the other by Colonel Washington, but neither of them put an end to the raids. In 1863 Colonel Kit Carson took an expedition into the heart of the Navajo country, killed many of their sheep and cattle so they were without means of support, and finally bottled them up in Canyon de Chelly. From there the whole tribe was sent to Bosque Redondo, Fort Sumner, New Mexico. They were kept here four years as prisoners of war.

Here they were given land to till, but for three successive years cutworms and drought brought them crop failure. Among their other tasks, the Navajo were set to work clearing river bottom lands, and epidemics of smallpox and pneumonia wrought havoc among them. Finally, declaring the land was accursed they staged a sit down strike which they refused to end. As government charges on ration, they cost too much and they were finally returned to their homeland, after the chiefs promised they would be good Indians.

When they arrived at Fort Defiance a few head of sheep were issued to each by the government. Since that time the tribe has increased from the eight thousand who were captured to almost fifty thousand; their sheep, cattle, horses, goats and reservation have all increased.

Furthermore, during the eighty years the breed of sheep has been improved with governmental assistance. The advent of the trader on the reservation has stimulated the arts of silver work and weaving, making it possible to obtain other goods.

Photograph by Simeon Schwemberger
A woman and two children sit in front of a hogan, a traditional Navajo dwelling. | Simeon Schwemberger 

THE PRIMARY MATERIAL basis of Navajo life lies in their herds of sheep and goats supplemented by agriculture. All of them also own horses and some today are raising herds of cattle. The Navajo move their herds over the land in accordance with the needs of grazing and water but they are really not nomads since every family moves within a limited area. In general, the flocks are herded on the high plateaus or in the mountains during the summer reasonably near a spring or stream. In winter they use snow for water and the sheep graze on whatever withered grass and brush they can find, although boughs are cut from the trees if the snow is exceptionally deep.

This mode of life makes villages impossible. Usually each family lives by itself and the houses are scattered. It is rare to find as many as three houses clustered together.

Each family has two localities depending upon the season, and there are two types of houses, the hogan of logs and mud for winter and the brush shelter for summer. Although the hogan is a rude type of shelter and devoid of any decorative embellishment, the description of its prototype in mythology is described in poetic and beautiful terms. That is, the deities built with poles of white shell, turquoise, obsidian, and four layers of the same materials. The floor was covered with a rug of obsidian, abalone, white shell, and turquoise and the door was curtained with a fourfold blanket of dawn, sky blue, evening twilight, and darkness. The top was covered with rainbows and sunbeams.

Photograph by Simeon Schwemberger
Hatali Naez, a Navajo medicine man, poses for a portrait. | Simeon Schwemberger 

After the winter hogan is finished, it is dedicated with a ceremony to invoke the blessings of and to honor benevolent powers and ward off the malevolent ones. Dry white corn meal is rubbed on each of the five main timbers of the house in a fixed order beginning with the south door post. Then the meal is sprinkled across the hogan in the direction travelled by the sun and a prayer is said. Then a medicine man comes and sings ceremonial songs for the house. He acts as the leader and the others join in the singing. There is a House Song for each of the cardinal directions, to the God of Dawn and the God of Twilight and to several deities. There are twelve songs in all. These are actually one song repeated with only the name of the power addressed changed.

The Navajo also build a sweat-house nearby. It is small and built like the conical hogan, except for the doorway and the absence of the smoke hole. In use, a number of stones are heated in the fire and then placed inside the sweat-house. The Navajo strips to a breech clout, crawls inside and the entrance is closed with a blanket. After remaining twenty minutes or longer, the Navajo comes out, rolls in the sand or plunges into the stream if located near one. Both men and women use the sweat bath at all seasons of the year, and it is frequently used in the course of the long ceremonial chants.

The Navajo is a shy, retiring fellow in company of strangers; but when alone with his own kind he is merry and jovial, and much given to jest and banter.

Photograph by Simeon Schwemberger
A woman weaves a rug on an upright loom. | Simeon Schwemberger 

The clothing of the modern Navajo is made almost entirely of materials obtained by trade, but the buckskin moccasins and the jewelry are of their own manufacture. Both men and women wear their hair pulled straight back and tied with a string at the back of the neck in a large and compact queue. The men ordinarily wear blue denim trousers and shirts, and for headgear either a silk handkerchief or the largest hat obtainable. The higher the crown on the hat the more desirable it is. Their own touch is to be found in the jewelry. Large silver belts of conchos, often set with turquoise, are worn around the waist; from their ear lobes hang pieces of flat polished turquoise suspended by a loop of string; around the neck are strands of beads of shell, coral, turquoise, and silver; on the fingers are rings of silver and turquoise and frequently a bow guard of leather decorated with silver and turquoise work is worn on the wrist. A moccasin of red dyed buckskin covers the top of the foot and comes well above the ankle, where it is fastened with thongs or silver buttons. The soles of the moccasins are always of cowhide. In cold weather the men wrap a blanket around themselves.

The modern costume for women consists of a long sleeved velvet shirt ornamented with silver buttons down the front, or with United States dimes and quarters used as buttons. The skirt falls to about six or eight inches from the ground, but its width is its distinctive feature. It is made of cotton cloth with strips of contrasting color sewed around it in three or four places and is often twelve to fifteen feet wide. It is this extreme width which causes it to billow out and flare when the wearer walks, and there is usually more than one skirt of the same kind beneath it. Her moccasins are the same as those worn by the men, although she may wrap a piece of white buckskin around her lower leg upon festive occasions. The woman wears as much or more jewelry than the man, the chief difference in the objects being a number of bracelets instead of the bow guard. Today the woman wears a bright colored Pen­dleton blanket around her shoulders as a shawl. The woman’s dress, like so many elements of Navajo culture, exemplifies their genius in borrowing materials from other peoples and reworking it into something distinctively their own. Their mythology, weaving, silver work and sand paintings can all be traced historically to some other people, yet all of these have been so reworked and infused with their own ideas that they are now typically Navajo.


THE ART OF WORKING SILVER was learned from the Mexicans and is not believed to be more than eighty years old. Although many silversmiths are now employed in the adjacent towns and equipped with more adequate tools, the description which follows is based on the tools traditionally used.

The smith’s tools are as follows: a homemade forge roughly constructed of stone and adobe, a rude goat or sheep skin bellows, anvils of scrap iron, and wedges of any metal base they could find. The silver is melted in clay crucibles or ones obtained from the trader. The moulds into which the silver is poured are cut in wood or modeled in clay. A blowpipe, borax for soldering, knives, awls, shears, hammers, files, pliers, punches and steel stamps are all purchased. The basic material is the Mexican silver dollar, which is either melted or hammered into desired shape, although United States silver coins are often used as buttons.

The chief articles made are beads, bracelets, rings, silver disks for belts, earrings. Jewelry of silver and turquoise is the Navajo’s proudest possession, and it is in this medium that he saves and banks — not money. As salesmen of their products the Navajo equals the Yankee, and traders say the Navajo enjoys nothing as much as driving a sharp bargain.

The most famous of all the Navajo arts is the woven rug made by the women. Despite the fact that this product is known all over the world, that the annual trade in rugs runs to hundreds of thousands of dollars and that it is the most dependable article to trade for white man’s goods, the art of weaving among the Navajo has a brief but complex history. It is estimated to be about one hundred and fifty years old, the first written record dating from 1780.

The loom on which the weaving is done was borrowed from the Pueblo Indians and the wool was acquired from the Spanish. Their first textiles were blankets made entirely for their own use. They entered into trade with the Spanish later. From the beginning of the nineteenth century until the captivity in 1863 they wove a product known as the Bayeta blanket. Bayeta is Spanish for English baize, a red dyed cloth of finely spun wool which the weavers unraveled and respun to make the weft for their blankets.

When their flocks were destroyed and the tribe was moved to Bosque Redondo weaving came to a standstill. When they returned to their old territory four years later the government gave new flocks of sheep, issues of cotton clothing, and cheap cotton twine for weaving warp, Germantown yarns and analine dyes. Soon afterward the traders came to the reservation and weaving became an industry, producing for sale rather than for their own use. It was largely the trader’s influence that changed the basic product of their looms from a blanket to a rug. At first there were some very poor products, but eventually standards of color, design, weave, dye, etc., were established to insure the market value of the Navajo rug.

Photograph by Simeon Schwemberger
Father Egbert Fisher, three Native children and an unidentified girl are pictured in front of a stone building. | Simeon Schwemberger 

Accompanying if not strictly paralleling these changes in weaving materials were the changes in design. The earliest blankets, like those of many of the Pueblo tribes, were striped. During the period 1800-1863 a horizontal zigzag motif was added to the stripes, sometimes meeting in a diamond in the center. After the return from captivity the diamond design rapidly displaced the older terraces and stripes. At about the beginning of the twentieth century, a fourth style having a border was introduced. Within each style there are many variations in color and complexity of design, but most of them are geometric patterns.

There is a great deal of preparatory work before the actual weaving of the fabric upon the loom begins. The wool has to be sorted and the long strands spun into warp strands. Then the wool is washed with suds made from the yucca root and after it has dried carded. Spinning is done with a distaff, a two foot length of smooth wood with a round disk attached to it about six inches from one end. The distaff is held in the right hand and the carded wool to be spun in the left. The upper end of the distaff is placed in the wool and with a few turns catches in its strands. While the distaff is spun with the right hand, the wool is pulled out into a long string with the left. When the wool has been spun to the required length and thickness, it is wound on the distaff until it is full and then wound into balls.

The wool may be left in natural color, or it may be dyed either with native vegetable dyes or with commercial dyes. When using the native dyes, the weaver must know the plants and minerals required to get the desired color and some substance to make the color fast.

The loom is set up between two upright posts with a cross piece at the top and bottom. When the warp strand has been wound around two smooth sticks, they are tied by the ends to the cross pieces, and the lower one is either buried or weighted to keep the warp tight during weaving. The weaver sits in front of the loom and works from the bottom up, and the loom is so set in the frame that it can be lowered. When the blanket is half finished, it is reversed and woven from the other end to the middle.

The front and rear strands of the warp are crossed in the middle, and the front strands and rear strands each have a separate heald, so that they can be crossed after each weft thread has passed through, thereby locking them in position. The loom set varies with the type of weave, but the weaver uses one or two battens to beat down the weft, and a type of wooden comb for pressing it down. All the weaver’s different colored yarns are before her. The design is kept in mind and worked out as she weaves. While there are many details about setting up the loom, keeping the blanket sides straight, variety of weaves, changing yarn, etc., which have not been described, the fundamental principles of Navajo weaving have been indicated.

Photograph by Simeon Schwemberger
Pupils at the school at St. Michaels Mission pose with two sisters. Katharine Drexel, who funded numerous missions in the United States and later was canonized by the Catholic Church, founded the school in 1902. | Simeon Schwemberger 

THE NAVAJO WIFE OWNS her own house or hogan, its furniture, her children, some sheep and their wool, the blankets she weaves, her jewelry, and sometimes a few horses. The Navajo man owns his horses, saddle, much turquoise and silver jewelry, and he may also own some sheep which he may have inherited from his mother. Either husband or wife may sell or trade what they own. However, either usually consults the other about any transaction of importance. The wife enjoys going to the trading post to sell or barter her wool or blankets, and the husband often accompanies her and acts as interpreter and adviser, leaving her free, however, to make final decisions.

Ceremonies of the Navajo differ from other tribes. If the body is ill or the spirit troubled, a ceremony results, just as a doctor or priest is called among the whites, with the difference it is announced in advance — except in cases of emergency. A small fortune in sheep, horses, or jewelry is spent in giving a chant, as the patient or relatives must pay the medicine man his fee and feed the people who gather to witness the ceremony. Of these the Mountain Chant is perhaps the most famous and lasts from ten to fourteen days climaxed by the Fire Dance.

In the Fire Dance, or Fire Play, the most perfect specimens of Navajo manhood are selected for the dance. As the legend goes, these dancers have been approved and massaged by the Navajo gods. They are dressed only in breech clout and moccasins, with their otherwise naked bodies plastered with white clay and their hair falling long and loose down their backs. Now begins the dance ’midst the thunder beat of the drums and the high quavering cry of the dozen or more fire dancers. Into the living fire they leap and cavort, with flaming brands of cedar bark in their hands with which the dancers literally bathe one another, seemingly immune to danger. The sight is both weird and spectacular, and as the dance continues to the end, the spectators stand awe-stricken and wondering. Wondering if indeed the Navajo gods from on High have not really imparted to their mortal children an immunity to all harm.

Photograph by Simeon Schwemberger

The photographs that accompany this story were made by Simeon Schwemberger, flanked in this photo by men identified as Brother Arnold (left) and Mr. Duran. While he was a Franciscan brother at the Navajo Nation’s St. Michaels Mission in the early 1900s, Schwemberger made hundreds of glass-plate negatives depicting Navajos, Hopis and other Native Americans. “Like a written journal, Schwemberger’s pictures form a diary of his experiences during his tenure at St. Michaels,” historian Michele M. Penhall writes in Big Eyes, Paul V. Long’s 1992 book on the photographer. Schwemberger’s negatives now are housed in the Greater Arizona Collection at the Arizona State University Library in Tempe.