Navajo Women Then and Now

The Pueblo People live the Southwestern part of the United States.  There are 21 Pueblos (means towns) today who live around the Four Corners area – Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The Navajo Pueblo is the largest, followed by the Hopi.  These people were ranchers and farmers and still continue to be, but many have moved to the cities.  Each group has its own way of life and philosophy.  Women’s roles are not consistent between the Pueblos but the importance of extended family or clan ties are essential and felt by all as being vital their survival.  In addition, “…ties to the land, sanctioned religious beliefs are also important” (Sheridan and Parezo 1996).  The focus will be on the historical role and current role of women in the Pueblo.

The Navajo (Dine)

                The Navajo see life as a journey – walking and talking are central to their culture.  The Navajo walk “the Beautiful Trail” in search of harmony, order and peace.  Their creation origin story includes Changing Woman and her children Child Born of Water and Monster Slayer who made the world safe.  The first man and woman built a hogan and the Holy People (immortal beings who travel the path of the rainbow) created the Earth people.  The Holy People stress prayer  and ceremonies  to make sure the world is safe , orderly and in harmony and to search for what is beautiful and good (the Blessingway).  The Navajo believe that all life is interdependent and they have respect for all beings (Parezo 1996).  Their searched along the Beautiful Trail brought them to the Southwest.

                The Navajo belong to a matrilineal clan composed of large groups of relatives identified with a common female ancestor.  “A Navajo is Born To the mother’s clan and Born For the father’s clan” (Parezo 1996).  When a new child is born the baby takes the clan of the mother – no matter if it is a boy or gir. The women who own the land and when a couple is married it was traditional custom for the groom to move-in with the bride and her family. (Navajo Women).  All clans are equal and Navajos believe half of the body is female – the other male, but they exist as one.

Beginning in the 1700s , the Navajo became pastoralists:  Horses and sheep provided their food, clothing and transportation.  The traveled the land living in hogans caring for their animals.  By the mid-1700s Navajo blankets became prized possessions.  They experienced a lot of suffering and death through the 1800s– forced into slavery, losing life and land to military and the Catholic Missionaries.   The government and Church did not understand Navajo women owned property and divided up the reservation while refusing to give the women grazing permits for their herds.  These excluded  women became destitute and shifted sheep from one clan to another and confused the inheritance pattern.   In the later part of the 1800s they were given sheep, cattle and horses and they quickly became adept at increasing their herds.  Sheep meant they would never starve again and became a way of life that involved the entire family.

                After World War II, many Navajo could not return back to the reservation and their herds.  The tribe began to look for other income and became the Navajo nations symbolizing their independence and that their land was separate from the rest of the land in the area.

Today the Navajo are still raising sheep and as Jennie Joe reports “sheep keeps our families together; everyone has a job to do” (Parezo 1996), but on a much smaller scale.  The sheep are the way Navajo values and culture are taught to their children. Children are raised in an extended family that includes grandparents and aunts and uncles.  Boys and girls are given lambs when they are the “right age” (when they are thought to be old enough to be responsible) and this is the beginning of their road toward “knowledge and wisdom”.  It is also the beginning of their future as shepherds and owners of a herd.  Caring for their sheep is how Navajo children are taught responsibility and what it means to be Navajo.   Navajo women care for sheep and goats and weave and often the proceeds from their rugs provide much needed income for the family.  It might appear hat weaving is only a woman’s job, but the entire family gets involved with other rolling yarn or obtaining the dye and is seen as a way to keep the family together and focused.  Chapter houses have been established and women are now paid a wage to weave rugs that are sold all over the world.

 “It is important to understand even though women have certain roles, our balance in society depends on the men. We know we need men to assist in the continuance of our culture as we depend on them to be the leaders – whether through being medicine men or by protecting our land. The balance hinges on our ability to incorporate and maintain the teachings of Hozhó – the philosophy of everything having a living essence and co-existing in harmony with one another” (Growing Up Navajo 2013).

References Cited

Parezo, Nancy J.

1996  “ The Dine (Navajos): Sheep is Life”.  Paths of Life: American Indians of the Southwest and Northern Mexico.  University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Roessel, Jaclyn

2013  “Growing Up Navajo”.  Electronic Document.  Accessed April 25, 2013.

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