Rabbitbrush Rambler: Navajo neighbors


Readers might have noticed a recent newspaper item about The Navajo Nation’s purchase of Wolf Springs Ranch  in the Wet Mountain Valley, across the Sangre de Cristo Range from our San Luis Valley. On this ranch, bison and cattle will be raised by these Native Americans, whom many of us picture as sheep herders, living in hogans and weaving gorgeous rugs, not as modern agriculturists.

We need to update our ideas. At Window Rock, Arizona, the Navajo Nation’s lawmakers and their Division of Economic Development are very much engaged with the modern world, as we can see from the news.

I also looked at the Navajo Nation’s internet site to learn how these people officially present their own history, but I found different several versions in print and on social networking. It turns out that even Navajo networkers have vastly different ideas about their own history, but I’ll stick with what the Nation’s authorities themselves and ethnologists say.

I’ll start by including the information that Blanca Peak has long been considered sacred by Navajos, who call it Tsisaasjini’, or, in English, White Shell Mountain. Another traditional bit of data is that three other Navajo landmarks traditionally delineated the Navajo territory, which are Colorado’s Mount Hesperus, New Mexico’s Taylor, and Arizona’s San Francisco Peak.

The accepted facts are that humans came across the then-existing land bridge from Asia to North America or by sea (not by emerging from the Underworld mythologies say). About a thousand years ago, some of these people, speaking Athapaskan (or Athabaskan) language started south out of western Canada a millennium ago and migrated through the Great Plains and the mountains searching for food, while some stuck close to the Northwest.

The Athapaskan-speaking groups called themselves loosely “The People.” Ethnologists theorize that some of The People are those whom we know as Apaches who split into different groups, including the Navajo Apache and others like the Jicarilla Apache. All of these came later than the earlier cultures like Clovis, Yuma, or Folsom.

The Navajo, who call themselves the Dine or The People, were still nomadic hunter-gatherers. They came into the American Southwest by about 1300 AD (or BP. meaning “Present Time” in current usage). Contact with Puebloan people occurred at about this time.

Also at that time, the Navajo encountered Ute Indians, Uto-Aztecan speakers who, like the Athapaskan people, were hunter-gathers and had come into the American Southwest from the south.

It is believed that the Navajo learned agriculture from the Puebloan people. In this collision of cultures, enduring enmity soon developed between the Navajo and Ute peoples. As these groups spread through the mountains, I myself tend to believe that it was during this period that the Navajo attempted to claim contested territory extending eastward from the Colorado Plateau toward Blanca Peak, but, as we know, the Ute people prevailed in the mountains and in some other lands in the West.

Then came Spanish conquistadores and colonists, only a couple of centuries after the Navajo first arrived in the Southwest. Then it took only another couple of centuries before traders and trappers entered from the east, soon to be followed by the conquering U.S. Army, the U.S. legal system, land offices, homesteaders, Indian reservations, hospitals, schools, markets, roads, railroads, real estate brokers, and all the rest.

In this human story, everything has happened in a mere blink of an eye. Now, so relatively quickly, the Navajo Nation is investing in a modern livestock operation northeast of Blanca Peak, but some of them may still call it their “sacred mountain.”

More In Opinion