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The most populous of all Indian groups in the United States, with about 170,000 individuals in the late 20th century scattered throughout northwestern New Mexico, Arizona, and southeastern Utah. The Navajo speak an Apachean language, which, like the language of their Apache cousins, is classified in the Athabascan family. It is uncertain when the Navajo and Apache migrated to the Southwest from Canada, where most other Athabascan-speaking Indians still live, but it was probably between AD 900 and 1200. Those early Navajo would have borne more resemblance to contemporary Apache than to contemporary Navajo, because the Navajo came under the strong influence of the Pueblo Indians. These Pueblo influences included farming as the primary mode of subsistence, with a concomitant trend toward a sedentary existence. In historical times, farming has been supplemented--and, in some regions, superseded--by herding of sheep, goats, and cattle.

The Navajo resemble other Apachean peoples in their lack of a centralized tribal or political organization. Formerly, they were organized into small bands of related kinsmen, with local headmen. Similar groups, based on locality of residence rather than kinship, still exist, and many of these local groups have elected headmen. A Navajo local group is not a village or town but rather a collection of dwellings scattered over a wide area.

Navajo contacts with Pueblo Indians are recorded at least as early as the 17th century, when refugees from some of the Rio Grande Pueblos came to the Navajo after the Spanish suppression of the Pueblo Revolt. During the 18th century, some Hopi Indians left their mesas because of drought and famine and came to live with the Navajo, particularly in Canyon de Chelly in northeast Arizona. These Pueblo visits influenced the Navajo not only in agriculture but also in the arts. Painted pottery and the famous Navajo rugs, as well as elements of Navajo ceremonialism such as dry-sand painting, are all products of these contacts. Another famous Navajo craft, silversmithing, dates from the middle of the 19th century and was probably first learned from Mexican smiths.

The Navajo religious system was intricate. Some of the many myths related the emergence of the first people from various worlds beneath the surface of the earth; other stories justified the numerous rites that were performed. Some of these were simple rituals carried out by individuals or families for luck in travel, trade, and gambling and for protection of crops and herds. The more complex rites demanded a specialist, who was paid according to his skill and the length of the ceremonial. Most rites were primarily for curing bodily and psychiatric illness. In other ceremonies there were simply prayers or songs, and dry paintings might be made of pollen and flower petals. In some cases there were public dances and exhibitions at which hundreds or thousands of Navajo gathered. Many of the rites are still performed.

Although the Navajo never raided as extensively as the Apache, their raiding was serious enough to cause the U.S. government in 1863 to order Colonel Kit Carson to subdue them. This order resulted in the destruction of large amounts of crops and herds and the incarceration of about 8,000 Navajo, along with 400 Mescalero Apache, at Bosque Redondo, 180 miles (290 km) south of Santa Fe, N.M. This four-year (1864-68) captivity left a legacy of bitterness and distrust that has still not entirely disappeared.

The Navajo Reservation and government-allotted lands in the states of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah today total more than 24,000 square miles (64,000 square km). The region, however, is mainly arid and generally will not support enough agriculture and livestock to provide a livelihood for everyone. Thousands earn their living as transient workers away from the Navajo country, and appreciable numbers have settled on irrigated lands along the lower Colorado River and in such places as Los Angeles and Kansas City.

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