by Stan Griffin


A group of about 400 Navajo Indians made a major contribution to U. S. success in the Pacific during World War II. Called the "Code Talkers," they took part in every assault the Marines conducted from 1942 to 1945, serving all six Marine divisions. They were at Guadacanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Saipan, and Iwo Jima, all important American military victories. During two days on Iwo Jima, six of them sent and received more than 800 messages, all without error.

Code Talkers transmitted messages in their native language–a code the Japanese may have intercepted but never broke. Their primary job was to transmit information on tactics and troop movements, orders, and other vital battlefield communications over telephone and radio.

Throughout the war, 540 Navajos served in the Marines. From 375 to 420 of them were trained as Code Talkers.

In 1981 the Code Talkers received a Certificate of Appreciation from President Reagan. In 1992, 35 of them were honored in the Pentagon at the opening of a special exhibit containing photos, equipment, and the original code and explanations. Present at the ceremony were Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Atwood and U. S. Senator John McCain of Arizona, along with tribal president Peterson Zah.

A movie, "Wind Talkers," was released in 2002. It revealed to many Americans for the first time the important part played by these men in the conquest of Japan.

The Navajos, or as they prefer to call themselves "Dine’ " (dihn-EH) meaning "The People," may be the largest group of Native Americans in this country (or perhaps only second to the Cherokees). The 2000 census reported nationwide that 269,000 identified themselves as being Navajo only, while 29,000 reported being part Navajo. Whether they outnumber the Cherokees is unclear as the two tribes use different methods of "defining their members," particularly those who claim partial tribal ancestry.

The Navajo reservation, largest in the U. S., spreads over parts of three states: most is located in northeast Arizona, but some lies in northwest New Mexico and southeast Utah. It occupies over 25,000 square miles and includes 16 million acres. Approximately 150,000 Navajos live there, while many live beyond its borders.

It is believed the ancestors of the Navajo migrated originally from Alaska and/or northern Canada. Anthropologists have classified them as an Athapaskan people, closely connected to others found in the same geographical area. Estimates on their coming to what is now the U.S. Southwest vary from 1000 A.D. to 1500 A.D.

Navajo legend tells a different story of their arrival here. It says life began in the First World, (an island surrounded by oceans) with one man and one woman. Guided by spirit beings called Holy People, they moved through three lower worlds until they came out on the earth’s surface through a hole in a mountain. They were then in the Fourth World.

The Creator put them on land between four mountains to create the boundaries of "Din’e Be keyah" (Navajoland), a sacred land. Those mountains were: (1) Blanco Peak on the east in the Sangro de Cristo Range; (2) Mt. Taylor on the south, near Grants, New Mexico; (3) San Francisco Peaks, Arizona in the west; and (4) Hesperus Peak in the LaPlata Mountains on the north. Four sacred rivers were also part of Navajoland.

Originally the Navajo were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Once here, they came into contact with the Pueblo Indians who taught them to raise crops. The Spanish came in the 18th century, bringing with them horses, sheep, and goats many of which were stolen by the Navajos. A priest wrote home, describing "great planted fields of these people." The Spanish word for fields was "nava," probably the origin of the familiar tribal name. Farming soon evolved into herding. Mexican colonists introduced orchards into the area, and from them the Navajos also learned the art of silver-smithing.

The Spanish fought all the Indian tribes in the area, capturing many and using them as servants. At times, Navajos joined with Pueblos and Apaches to fight off the invaders. When American settlers came on the scene in the 19th century, they were looking for gold. Many of them also established ranches, and the Navajos fought to keep their land.

The first treaty with the U. S. was signed in 1846. Within three years, hostilities had resumed. By 1863, a large force of American troops under the command of Colonel Kit Carson had established control over the Navajos by killing stock and destroying crops, forcing them to surrender. Carson rounded up 8,000 men, women, and children and made them march to Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico, a distance of more than 300 miles. This is known as "The Long Walk." Many Navajos died before reaching their destination.

At Fort Sumner, disease and famine struck the Dine’, and more than a thousand died in captivity. By 1868, both sides agreed to a new treaty which allowed the Navajos to return to their former lands in Arizona and western New Mexico where a reservation was established.

By the early 1920s, oil was discovered on Navajoland. This was followed by strikes of gas, coal, and uranium which brought millions of dollars into the tribal treasury. A tribal government had been established in 1923, and it eventually became the largest and most sophisticated in the U. S. It has three branches like the U. S. federal government; today its official name is "Navajo Nation."

"The essence of Navajo religion is (the) relationship between the people and their land ...(which is) life itself ... and well being ..." Rituals and ceremonies carried out are a vital part of their daily routine. "The Earth and all that exists in the natural world are manifestations of the ... natural order of things ..(The Navajos) . . . are taught to live in harmony with Mother Earth ..." The purposes of Navajo life are to " ... maintain a balance between individual and universe ... (and) live in harmony with nature and the Creator." They are to " observe the natural order of life and live in accordance (with it)."

Navajo religion is essentially "shamanism" in which a medicine man (or woman) acting as a medium (one who deals with spirits) is the recognized clergyman/woman.

Many ceremonies, most of which are dedicated to preserving or restoring health (both physical and mental), are largely magical and an essential part of society. Some involve sweat baths, singing prayers, and creation of elaborate sand paintings. These are constructed by trickling sand colored with minerals on natural sand to make a mosaic (picture) on the floor of a lodge, usually at dawn. The sick person is placed in the middle of the home, and a medicine man/woman performs a "healing." At the end of the day, the painting has to be destroyed.

To effect cures, the shaman also uses herbs, medicines, prayers, and songs.

The Navajos are firm believers in witchcraft and ghosts. They believe diseases are caused by evil beings, "malign influence of enemies," and various occult (supernatural) agencies. Witches practice magic for personal gain or to harm others.

Modern housing is available on the reservation, but many (especially in rural areas) prefer to live in traditional houses called "hogans." They are usually constructed of logs, bark, and packed earth in a round dome-roofed shape " ... in accordance with instructions found in the Navajo creation story ..." They are used for religious ceremonies. Hogans have six sides, and the roof is supported with four main posts to correspond with the four sacred mountains. Doors always face eastward to welcome the morning sun. Because of their design, hogans are cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

The Navajo tribe is subdivided into 50-60 clans or gentes. Each person inherits clan membership from their mother. When describing his/her background, a Navajo must give: name; mother’s clan ("born into ..."); followed by father’s clan ("born for ...")

Today many Navajos still make their living as farmers or sheep ranchers. However, a growing number follow other occupations such as engineer, miner, teacher, and technician. Still others are craft workers: weaving rugs and wool blankets, making baskets, and silver jewelry such as bracelets, rings, earrings, belts, and necklaces (often with a blue stone called turquoise). Navajos are making a concerted effort to attract more of the tourists who come to Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

Navajos have the largest tribal income in the U. S.--$50 million yearly-- mainly from oil and gas leases and mineral and forest resources.

Navajo Community College, the first college owned and operated by Indians, is on the reservation, in Tsaile, Arizona, near Lukachukai.

Every September, the Navajo Nation Fair is held. It takes place in Window Rock, Arizona, lasts five days, and attracts 100,000 + visitors to features such as an all-Indian Rodeo, intertribal pow wow, and traditional Navajo singing, dancing, and food.

The beauty of the Navajo Reservation has been an "irresistible magnet" to film and television producers from all over the world. A few of the places featured in their productions are: Canyon de Chelly National Park; Tribal Park, the Little Colorado River, Rainbow Bridge National Monument, and Monument Valley (which was used for a number of western movies including "Stagecoach," "My Darling Clementine," and "The Searchers."

"Tenacious ... adaptable ... enduring ... spiritual ... words that characterize the largest and most influential Indian tribe in North America ... The Navajo Nation."


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