Summary – Indigenous People of the Southwest – Culture, Tradition and Religion

            There are many American Indian tribes native to the Southwest of the United States.  They come from the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Southern Colorado, and the northern part of Mexico.  The indigenous people who are categorized as Southwest Native Americans fall into three main categories:

·         The Farmers – The Yuma, Pima and Mojave tribes

·         The Villagers – The Zuni, Pueblo and Hopi

·         The Nomads – The Apache and Navajo

The languages of the Southwest Native Americans included Siouan, Algonquian, Caddoan, Uto-Aztecan and Athabaskan.

There is evidence between 40,000 and 13,000 years ago the Bering Land Bridge connected Alaska and Siberia as a route the Pueblo people eventually traveled to the Southwest.  This was a bridge of land that appeared and disappeared based on the rise and ebb of the ocean due to glaciers melting and freezing over and over again; this happened over thousands of years and many scientists feel the ancient people went back and forth between the two continents.

 Scientists have based much of their research on the size of the points on spears  found  called Clovis points– they started out very large and diminished to smaller blades and points as ancient people changed their type of hunting from big game to smaller animals.  Until recently the Clovis people were identified by their spears.  The Clovis people appear in all parts of the United States; they were big game hunters who were always on the move following the large animals.  There is evidence of these paleohunters in the Colorado River basin of the Southwest. Because they moved from site to site, they left little behind and it is though that most of their goods and personal possession were made of items that didn’t last. It is thought they hunted in small groups, killing animals to the point of extinction and continued to move south in search of animals eventually settling in the Grand Canyon area.  Archeologists can surmise that the Paleo hunters conceptualization of time followed the pattern of the celestial and natural world. “ In hunter-gatherer societies, humans lived by the recurring rhythms of nature” (Esposito et all 2011).  The decrease of large game led them to explore new sources of food and they became small game hunters and gatherers of nuts, seeds and other plants.  By 9,000 more people had immigrated to the Grand Canyon area and the Archaic period began (Sheridan 1996). There are very little records of these early people; evidence of Clovis points and how they evolved, but little else and the Clovis people all but disappeared.

Traditionally, Native Americans of the Southwest lived in community structures divided by clan. Most tribes in Southwest Indian culture are matrilineal, with heritage and property/livestock ownership following the female line. Children born into matrilineal societies are part of their mother’s clan; even boys who later marry and reside with their wife’s clan. 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 girl. The women  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. (Miss Navajo).  All clans are equal and Navajos believe half of the body is female – the other male, but they exist as one. 

Many modern tribes still follow matrilineal practices, though an increasing number of Native Americans reside in smaller family units.    Hand-built dwellings such as the Pueblo kiva and the Navajo hogan, an octagonal mud hut, have gradually been replaced by modern housing large enough to accommodate extended family. In current Southwest Indian culture, the kiva and hogan are used for ceremonial purposes. Elements of their construction can be found in many Indian buildings. 

The religion, ceremonies and beliefs of the Southwest people were based on Animism; they believed the universe and all natural objects within the universe have souls or spirits.   These souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in animals, plants, trees, rocks and all natural forces and phenomena such as the rain, sun and moon and geographic features such as mountains, caves or rivers also possess souls or spirits.  For example, 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. 

The Jesuit missionaires have had tremendous influence on the rituals and ceremonies of the indigenous people of the southwest.  The Raramuri from Northwest Mexico celebreate Holy Week or Semana Santa and it is the most sacred time of the year for the them; it is very extravagant and the ceremony with the most Christian/Catholic using images, symbols and traditions dating back to the Spanish Jesuit missionaries.  Semana Santa  is a spring festival  “to renew the strength of Father Sun, so he can nourish his people and … fight off the evil influences of the annoyer, that is the devil or outsiders “ (Raramuir Designs 2011) .The Raramuri call it When We Walk in Circles because their religion procession walks around and around the church. During the celebrations the Raramuri place pine tree branches showing the way to the various processions similar to the palm fronds that were laid for Jesus on Palm Sunday.

The Indian people of the Southwest have a great variety of different places which are considered to be sacred. Some of these are structures have been constructed by the people; some are places associated with origin stories and oral traditions while others are places that  have been used for ceremonies and other spiritual activities.  Non-Indians sometimes have difficulty in understanding and “seeing” the sacredness that Indian people attach to certain places. Often this is due to a difference in the spiritual experiences of Indians and non-Indians. Among Indian people, with their long association with the land, there are locations – such as geographical features – which have a prominent place in their oral tradition and in their origin stories. Some of these are places where acts of creation occurred prior to the existence of human beings and others are places where the activities of ancient ancestors took place. Once a place has become a part of the sacred landscape, it is always sacred.  Native American sacred places continue to be sacred even after the people no longer live in the area.   Baboquivari Peak is the most sacred place) teaching the people that life is a maze of obstacles that must be overcome along life’s path or himdag. to the Tohono O’odham people. It stands fifty miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona on the Baboquivari Peak wilderness, a 2,065 acre area overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.  I’itoli or Elder Brother Lives Inside Baboquivari.  The rock god I’itoli, also spelled I’itoi, lives in a cave on the northwest side of the mountain that he enters by a maze of passages. Legend says he came into this world from a world on the other side, leading his people, whom he had turned into ants, through an ant hole. He then changed them back into the Tohono O’odham people. The Tohono O’odham still regularly make pilgrimages to the cave, leaving offerings and prayers for I’itoli. I’itoli often appears in basketry as a male figure above a maze (Man in the Maze symbol

History for the people of the Southwest is oral and passed down through generations. The Apache name locations by what they see the first time; the name is a visual description of the physical landscape of a location.   For centuries locations were passed from generation to generation as a place to gather food, obtain water, good places to grow food, etc.  As they described the location, they named the place.  The Apache names for places connect them not only to their homeland but to their ancestors.  They hear the descriptions and can imagine how different the land was then versus as it is now; they see their ancestors made good decisions in deciding to stay based how they describe what they saw and experienced.

            Native American Indian culture has long been steeped in tradition and ceremony. Native American rituals of the Southwest share similarities, largely because traditions were passed between tribe members that intermarried. However, each of the more than 20 distinct tribes of the Southwest differs slightly in their spiritual and community practices.      Pivotal moments such as the birth of a child or a girl’s entrance into puberty are celebrated with rituals. Zuni girls grind corn at the home of their paternal grandmother to signal their transition into adulthood. Many of the courtship and marriage rituals of the Hopi have evolved over the last fifty years, but there are still several marriage customs still in practice:  a four-day stay by the bride with her intended in-laws. During this time she grinds corn all day and prepares all the family’s meals to demonstrate her culinary competence. Prior to the wedding, the aunts of both the bride and groom engage in a sort of good-natured free-for-all that involves throwing mud and trading insults, each side suggesting the other’s relative is no good. The groom’s parents wash the couple’s hair with a shampoo of yucca in a ritual that occurs in other ceremonies as well. A huge feast follows at the bride’s mother’s house.  Marriage to non–tribal members is extremely rare, a fact that has helped preserve Hopi culture.  (Lassieur).  Even a tribe member’s name can become part of Native American rituals. Babies born to the Hopi tribe of northeastern Arizona are not named until twenty days after their birth. During a special naming ceremony, parents choose the baby’s name from among suggestions given by each relative present.

Health and healing are among the most important concerns of Native American ritual. It is essential to understand the concept of health other than in the terms of Western medicine. Many Native American cultures understand illness not as the result of some biochemical, physiological, or psychological malady, but as a sign of disorder in society or the world, which is then reflected in the illness of an individual. Diagnosis thus consists of discerning the status of the community or the world. Healing requires repairing or restructuring these environmental concerns.   From the Native American perspective, medicine is more about healing the person than curing a disease. Traditional healers aim to “make whole” by restoring well-being and harmonious relationships with the community and the spirit of nature, which is sometimes called God or the Great Mystery. Native American healing is based on the belief that everyone and everything on earth is interconnected, and every person, animal, and plant has a spirit or essence. Even an object, such as a river or rock, and even the earth itself, may be considered to have this kind of spirit. When a tribe member is ill, a medicine man is called to perform a healing ceremony. Rites differ in each tribe; among the Navajo, healings culminate with the creation of a sand painting. Maize pollen is used to bless the hogan in which the ceremony is conducted. The tradition of using corn for purification is common among Native American rituals of the highly agricultural Plains and Pueblo Indians. Though some modern Southwest Indian tribes utilize “Western” medicine, most rely on centuries old plant medicines and blessings administered by local medicine men.

Outsiders are normally prohibited from participating in – or even seeing – Native American rituals with spiritual significance. However, ceremonies that involve the entire tribe through song and dance may be performed for public audiences.

The Rain Dance, one of the most stereotypical and iconic Native American rituals still practiced today, draws crowds to the Zuni Pueblo every summer. The dance was originally intended to bring about rain in the naturally arid climate of the Southwestern desert. During the ceremony, Zuni men and women don masks and perform ritual movements dressed in shawls and fox skins to encourage the watering of crops.   The Kachina Dance is one of the most powerful and important rituals of the Hopi tribe. The colorful kachinas are believed to be powerful spirits that can bring rain, encourage crop growth and assist with other tribal needs. Hopi men of all ages participate in Kachina Dances that take place throughout the year. The Bean Dance, for example, is performed in late winter after the earliest signs of plant growth. Similar rituals are performed at the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico. Among their important kachina dances is the New Year celebration of Shakalo, which involves costumed dancers trekking across a small river and through the village to bless each house.

Changing Woman, the principal deity of the Navajo religion, represents the many roles that a woman takes on in her lifetime. Changing Woman also created the first Navajo clans and guidelines for living and established the matrilineal system.   Navajo women have always been at the core of social and economic control in their culture and occupy a strong position in Navajo life. Women are the potters and weavers, crafts they have been practicing for centuries. Women have traditionally owned the land and livestock, passing these possessions down to their daughters, who have been trained to manage them. 

The Hopi area considered one of the more traditional Indian societies in the continental United States. The social organization of traditional Hopi society is based on kinship clans determined through the woman’s side of the family.  Women are the backbone of Hopi society.    Women own the farming and garden plots, though men are responsible for the farming as well as the grazing of sheep and livestock. Women are also centrally involved in Hopi arts and crafts. By tradition the women’s products are specialized and determined by their residence. Women make ceramics on First Mesa, coiled basketry on Second Mesa, and wicker basketry on Third Mesa. Hopi men do the weaving.  (French)

Basket making was one of the earliest skills developed since baskets were needed for carrying goods, for storage, for trapping and fishing, and for religious ceremonies.  Unlike pottery, baskets do not survive for extended periods of time.  Most that are available today were constructed in the last 120 years, particularly after native people in the Southwest began to make baskets with the idea of selling them and moved baskets into the category of artistic collectables.  The most valuable baskets are those made by the Apache and Yavapai. Apache designs are less symmetrical and, at times, seemed cluttered; the Yavapai used similar methods to those of the Apache .  They frequently include figures (human, dog, deer, and snake).  Weavers suggest that it is helpful to let the basket talk to them and tell them the design rather than planning it ahead of time. Hopi baskets are among the most plentiful reducing their value. Navajo basket making has declined in recent decades but survives because of the importance of wedding baskets. Such baskets are used as part of the religious wedding ceremony and are expected to reflect a common pattern.  Basket making has gradually declined with the Akimel O’Odham but is still common among the Tohono O’Odham, who have an association that supports production. Certain designs have been commonly used including the Man in the Maze, the Sunflower, and the Turtle.

The culture of the people of the Southwest is fascinating and filled with a tradition and history that for many of us is new, but foreign.  I think what we can learn from these people is fascinating – they truly are survivors.



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Basso, Keith. 1996 Wisdom Sits in Places:Landscape and Language among the Western Apache.

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Kennedy-Simpson, Georgianna. Navajo Ceremonial Baskets: Sacred Symbols Sacred Space.  Native Voices, 2004.  Web.  1 June 2013.

Lassieur, Ellen.  2002  The Hopi.  Print. Mankaato : Capstone Press

Luther, Billy. “Miss Navajo”.  Public Broadcast Station (PBS).  Film. 2006.  Web.  24 April 2013. 

Mehl-Medrona LE.   “Native American medicine in the treatment of chronic illness: developing an integrated program and evaluating its effectiveness”.   Alternative Health Medicine.   5 (1999) :36-44.  Web.  17 May 2013.

 “Native American Healing”.  American Cancer Society.  Web.  17 May 2013.

Raramuri Design – About the Tarahumara.  2011 Web.  April 24, 2013.–tarahumara.html

Roessel, Jaclyn.  “Growing Up Navajo”.  2013 Web.  25 April 2013.

Sheridan, Thomas and Nancy J. Parezo.  1996  Paths of Life: American Indians of the Southwest and Northern Mexico.  Print.  Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

“Southwest Native Americans”. The Indigenous People of the United States. 2012. Web.  4 April 2013.  2012

Subau, Isabelle and  Mircea Sabau.  2004. Electronic document,, 7 June 2013.

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“We:s T-We-M’am BoJu: Together We Will.  History and Culture”.  Official Website of the Tohono O’Odham Nation. Web.  6 May 2013.

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