Navajo Migration Southwest

Navajo HistoryNearly a century of research in the Gobernador region has answered old questions and raised new ones. When did the Navajo arrive in the Southwest? Or, as Navajo oral history suggests, were they here already? When did the Navajo become the expert farmers known to early Spanish explorers? Who built the pueblitos? What happened in the Gobernador over the last five hundred years?

Most anthropologists and archaeologists believe that Navajo people came from the north or central Asia, thousands of years ago. They say that a people they call Na-Dene crossed the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age when there was an ice passage between the hemispheres and arrived in what is now called Alaska. Over the centuries, they migrated south, spreading out throughout Canada and the United States, even into northern Mexico. Among the Na-Dene people were Athabascans and, according to this theory, these are supposedly the ancestors of the Navajo. Somewhere on their journey from the far north, Athabascans separated into two main groups – Northern and Southern Athabascans. Although there is little physical evidence, such as artifacts, for this anthropological theory, there is much linguistic evidence. Even today, similar words exist among Northern and Southern Athabascans.

Athabascan speaking peoples added to the diversity of the Southwest during the late prehistoric period, 15th and 16th centuries. Today the Athabascans are divided into two groups. The northern Athabascan speakers are located in Canada, especially the McKenzie Basin area. This is the area from which the Navajo and Apache migrated. The southern Athabascan speakers are located in the Southwestern U.S.; although there are some descendents, the Lipan Apache in northern Mexico. Athabascan speakers are divided into 7 linguistic subgroups: Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarilla, Kiowa-Apache, Lipan, Navajo, and Western Apache, which includes San Carlos, western Montana, Yavapai-Apache, and Tonto. Based on linguistic similarities and differences, it has been estimated that the southern group split from the northern group about 1000 A.D., and the southern groups further separated about 1300 A.D. This was another case of migration of hunter-gatherers into the Southwest. The migration was not one or a few tribes, but numerous small bands. Originally the Navajo and the Apache had no horses or agriculture, but in a few short centuries, their subsistence and social organizations were transformed. Today, the Navajo tribe is the largest Native American tribe in North America, and Navajo rugs are considered superior quality Native American weaves. The Navajos call themselves “Diné” – “The People.” When the Spaniards explored this area in the 1600s they used the name “Apache de Navajo,” meaning “Apache of the Cultivated Fields.”

The group of people known as Southern Athabascans migrated to the south over the course of hundreds of years, according to anthropological theory. They may have traveled south along the Pacific Coast, or they may have traveled through the Great Basin near the vicinity of present-day Salt Lake City, or through the Rocky Mountains or the western Great Plains. The migrations may have taken hundreds or thousands of years. Most probably people traveled in small nomadic groups, living primarily as hunters and gatherers. At some point, Navajos split off from other Southern Athabascans. Some historians believe that Navajos migrated into the Southwest sometime between A.D. 200 and 1300. The earliest definitively dated Navajo site is 1541 A.D. in northwestern New Mexico, near Navajo Reservoir. Some of the other Southern Athabascans went as far south as northern Mexico, while still others were the ancestors of modern-day Apaches, Hoopa, and other tribes. Among the languages of Navajos and Apaches there are many linguistic similarities; and in some cases, there are even similar spiritual and ceremonial practices. Apache Sunrise ceremonies are similar to the Navajo Kinaalda, for example, both being puberty ceremonies to acknowledge the coming of age of young women. Both are based on oral story traditions of Changing Woman. Navajo ancestors may have intermingled with ancient Fremont Indians and with the Anasazi.

The archaeology of early Navajo origins has been studied more than the other Athbascan groups because of the large amount of cultural resources management work done in northwestern New Mexico. Archaeologists divide Navajo occupation into two phases:

  • the Dinetah Phase
  • and the Gobernador Phase.

During the Dinetah Phase, 1450-1680 A.D., we find burned structures in the style of early Navajo structures known as forked-stick hogans, and Dinetah pottery is gray with pointed bottoms. There are other sites in the same area with hearths and plain ware pottery dated 50 – 100 years earlier, which may be Navajo or Ute; however, 1450 A.D. is considered the probable earliest date for Navajo sites. The problem of old or dead wood affects the accuracy of many of the dates.

Inside a sheltered entryway, the hogans have central hearths and mealing bins for grinding corn flour and other foods. Much like the ancestral Pueblo “pithouses” built nearly 1000 years earlier, many of these housed a large family of farmers working the soils of the mesatops and canyons. Others seem to have been the homes of single, perhaps unmarried, men living near their families. These hint at the early development of the uniquely Navajo settlement pattern in the Southwest. Traditionally, the living group or outfit, changes size during the year, with families clustering in winter and scattering in summer. The local community changes as well over the long term as families grow, children marry, and elders are lost. Bare poles are all that mark hogans once shared by families in the Gobernador. Once the forked-stick structures fail, they collapse to the ground. Unless the wood was scavenged or recycled into another home or building, the fallen house beams create a “wheel spoke” pattern.

When work on Navajo Dam and Reservoir brought archaeologists back to study what would be lost beneath the water, most agreed on the broad outlines of Navajo archaeology: The Navajo had arrived in the Southwest before the Spanish Entrada of 1540-1541; they had moved into New Mexico’s canyonlands between 1500 and 1700; the pueblitos of Dinétah were built by Navajos working alongside Pueblo “refugees” during the late 1600s and early 1700s; and the Gobernador region was abandoned by about 1750. The confluence of the Los Pinos and the San Juan, where the Navajo had made their home, has now disappeared under the rising waters of Navajo Reservoir.

As archaeologists have learned new ways of working in the Gobernador, they have found Navajo hogan sites which are nearly five hundred years old. In Navajo oral history, though, their story starts long before the first hogan is built. What archaeologists see in the Gobernador is only a small part of the story of Dinétah. Each new study, whether of archaeological sites or traditional knowledge, brings us closer to the many worlds which meet here.

Even the earliest hogan sites in the Gobernador tell us that these settlers were farmers long before the arrival of the Spanish. They depended as much on corn, beans, squash, and other crops as the Ancestral Pueblo farmers who first broke ground here. Sheep and goats, horses and mules, and a livestock-based lifeway came later.

What about the pueblitos? Some were built to shelter farm families during raids, others shielded religious leaders and the elderly, still others served as lookouts and signaling sites. Each tells us more about a time when frontiers were crossed, alliances made and broken, the worlds of Pueblo, Navajo, Spanish, and Ute met, and the Southwest was changed forever.

During the Gobernador Phase, 1680-1780 A.D., the Navajo population was still small, estimated at approximately 3500. The Pueblo Revolt marks the beginning of the phase. Settlement was concentrated in the Dinetah area, considered the Navajo homeland, along the Gobernador and Largo canyons of northwestern New Mexico. Most of the occupation of the Gobernador Phase is early 18th century, not during the Pueblo Revolt. There are sites with both masonry rooms and forked-stick hogans, and trade items from both the Spanish and the Pueblos. Some of the ceramics of the phase are decorated polychrome, and the plain pottery has fillets below the rim. It was originally thought that the Gobernador Phase was a period in which Pueblo and Navajo people lived together, but recent discovery suggests the Navajo built these structures for defense from Spanish and Ute. Many have dead-end entries, serpentine passages, encircling defensive walls, single points of access, loopholes for gun ports, and removable logs for ladders and bridges. By this time, the Navajo clearly show the incorporation of features from Spanish and Pueblo influence, especially corn, sheep, weaving, and polychrome pottery manufacture. The Navajo moved to the south and west at the end of the 18th century, probably because of conflict with both
the Ute and Comanche.

The most striking sites of the Gobernador are the “pueblitos” which guard the canyons and their memories. These stone fortresses, nearly invisible against the forested horizon or at the base of the canyon walls, sheltered families and their foodstuffs from about 1680 through the 1750s. Even earlier, though, are the mud and wood hogans, sweatlodges, windbreaks and ramadas which cluster on mesa tops throughout the Gobernador. The hogans, single room, earth-sheltered homes with a log and pole frame, have yielded tree-ring building dates going back to at least 1541. Future archaeological research may well reveal earlier houses.

The pottery of Dinétah gives us details of the Gobernador’s history which no written account or oral history has recorded. Whole pots and pieces, from each of the neighboring Pueblo communities are found side by side with Navajo-made vessels, Spanish Colonial imports, and even fine china from the Orient.

Nowhere is this clearer than at Three Corn Pueblito. The last tree cut for a ceiling beam at this fortification was felled in 1737. When Three Corn was abandoned a few years later, 63 of the pueblo’s pots were smashed on top of the community’s cemetery. Most were Gobernador Polychrome jars and bowls and Dinetah Grey storage jars, now broken into hundreds of pieces. Some of the broken pots were jars and bowls made in the Zuni and Acoma pueblos, at Jemez’ ancestral villages and retreats from the Spanish, in the Keresan pueblos of the middle Rio Grande, in the Tewa villages of the upper Rio Grande, and out on the Hopi Mesas. Centuries-old heirlooms were thrown to the ground along with nearly new pots. A single broken saucer came to Three Corn Pueblito by way of the Spanish Manila galleon trade from the Chinese pottery-making cities of the Ch’ing dynasty.

Clay-covered and pitched basketry jars were used by many cultures of the Southwest for carrying and storing water. Dinetah Grey, the most common Navajo pottery in the Gobernador, may be made as early as the mid-1400s. It remained in use at hogan sites and pueblitos through the 1700s. The Spanish Colonial oil or wine jar came to the Gobernador via the Camino Real from northern Mexico, then out to the Navajo country on a Spanish expedition or through trade. The jar was probably more valuable to the Navajo than its contents.

Spindlewhorls from the Rio Grande Pueblos and the Gobernador were used in “plying” spun thread, or twisting two or more threads together to make a strong fiber cordage for weaving. The Spanish encomienda system forced the Pueblo communities to provide both labor and finished goods to the missions and estancias. As the Spanish, and later the Mexicans, increased their demands for valuables to ship south, particularly cotton and woolen cloth, more Navajo “black blankets” entered the trade market. By 1812, the Navajo woolen goods were described as “the most valuable in the New Mexico province.

Cradleboards have been found in the Gobernador. Traditional Navajo today still make cradleboards from juniper or cedar wood. The cradleboard, a gift of the Holy People, embodies a child’s mother, the earth, in the long boards. The crossboards are their father, the sun. Blankets of clouds and ties of sheet lightning and lightning bolts hold the child fast. Over their head, a shade bent like a rainbow keeps them safe.

Burials at Three Corn Pueblito and Frances Canyon Pueblito contained hundreds of European trade beads. Strings of small green, purple, blue, and red glass beads manufactured in the early and mid-1700s were the most common, but some types are as much as 100 years older. Although the Navajo lived far beyond any regular trade route, some goods moving up the Camino Real on supply wagons from New Spain (at first every three years, then yearly) eventually made their way to the Gobernador. Olivella shell beads and abalone shell pendants, valuable aboriginal trade goods, were found as well, along with bone, shell disk, and stone beads.

Two “potmetal” crosses were placed in the grave of a child buried at Three Corn Pueblo. One has an image of Christ on one side and the Virgin Mary on the reverse. Given to acolytes and converts at the Spanish missions, these may have been used simply as decorative pendants in the Gobernador. Spanish attempts to establish missions among the Navajo failed first in the early 1600s, and again in the mid-1700s even though the Navajo had moved closer to Spanish settlements to escape Ute and Comanche raiders.

The Pueblito country lies at the heart of the Navajo Dinétah. The ancestors of today’s Pueblo communities had once made this region their home as they moved across the Southwest. Today, this land is well remembered. Once blessed, the landmarks on this frontier remain forever part of the Pueblo and Navajo heritage.

Over the next two centuries, Spanish colonists and Pueblo communities would trade with Apaches and Navajos in some years and suffer raids in others. Foodstuffs, hides, livestock, woven blankets, tools, jewelry, people, and in time Navajo rugs, made their way back and forth across the frontier, along the canyons of the Gobernador. By 1608, Navajo and Apache raids on villages and towns across the region brought Spanish mounted soldiers across the border. By 1659, captive Navajo men, women and children were being sold along the Rio Grande and sent south to work in silver mines south in Zacatecas. Everyone was raided – Spanish, Apache and Navajo, Pueblo and Ute, all took captives and losses in turn. In 1680, after years of raids and retaliatory strikes, Native people united to drive the Spanish down the Rio Grande to El Paso del Norte. They would not return for a dozen years.

Between 1705 and 1716, Spanish troops and their Pueblo allies, hard pressed by raids from the frontier lands, marched into the Gobernador nearly every year. They killed and enslaved many Navajo, burned fields, captured horses, and took back Pueblo people who had sought refuge from the unrest along the Rio Grande. By 1720, though, the Navajo and the Spanish had a new common enemy in the Ute tribes pressing south along the San Juan River.

Because pottery from New Spain was so scarce, Native potters in the Southwest were expected to supply mission priests and acolytes with dishes. The Puebla majolica soup plate found at the Abo mission site is one of the few pieces manufactured in New Spain found in a Pueblo mission site. At the Jemez mission at Giusewa, now Jemez State Monument in New Mexico, and on the Hopi Mesas, soup plates followed Spanish forms but with indigenous designs. After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the destruction of the missions, Jemez and Hopi stopped making soup plates. The Gobernador Polychrome soup plate is Navajo-made, a 17th-century copy of this once popular style.

When they first met, the Spanish armies and the warriors of the Southwest followed very different traditions. The Spanish brought horse-mounted troops, and foot soldiers, iron and steel-bladed lances and cross-bow bolts, chainmail, heavy armor, cannons, swords, pistols, muskets, gunships, oxen and mule-drawn supply wagons. The Southwestern tribes and Pueblos met them on foot, behind leather shields, deadly recurved or “Turkish” bows, simple long bows, stone-tipped spears and arrows, fire-hardened wooden lances, buckskin hunting shirts and feathered caps, and a single tactical edge – superior knowledge of the land and its resources.

Over the centuries, each learned about each other. By the mid 1600s, the Southwest peoples were becoming expert horsemen; by the mid 1700s, firearms were triggered by native hands. The Spanish were learning the land, and forging alliances with its people. Treaties and promises, and the inequalities these friendships fostered, made for quickly shifting advantages.

Speed and power gave the upper hand to each in turn – first to the horse-mounted militias of New Spain, then to the quick-firing, fast moving native bowmen, then to the Ute and Comanche against the Apache and Navajo, now on horseback, and armed with guns, bows, and lances. Only in the late 1800s would the battles set in motion nearly 300 years before, finally come to an end.