The Navajo were formerly a nomadic tribe. In winter they lived in earth-covered lodges and in summer in brush shelters called hogans. They farmed (corn and beans), hunted (deer, elk, and antelope), and gathered wild vegetable products. After sheep were introduced (early 17th cent.) by the Spanish, sheep raising superseded hunting and farming. Thus the Navajo became a pastoral people. They have adopted many arts from their neighbors—from the Mexicans metalworking, from the Pueblo weaving. They live in extended kinship groups, and traditional inheritance is through the mother's line; women have an important position in the society. The traditional Navajo religion is elaborate and complex, with many deities, songs, chants, and prayers and numerous ceremonies, such as the enemy way ceremony (commonly called the squaw dance) and the night chant. The vast belief system includes a creation story that states that Esdzanadkhi (a form of Mother Earth) created humanity. The Navajo have also subscribed to the peyote cult.
In the 1930s the overgrazed and eroded grasslands of the Navajo Reservation caused the federal government to reduce the tribe's sheep, cattle, and horses by as much as 50%. The government, having left the Navajo without a means of support, began a program of irrigation projects, thus enabling them to turn to agriculture for a livelihood. Farming, however, can support only a fraction of the people, and as a result many have had to obtain their income off the reservation. The discovery of coal, oil, gas, and other minerals has helped to increase the tribal income.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.