Cultural Overview

With a total population of nearing 300,000, the Navajo are the largest native nation in the contiguous United States. At the time of European contact, the Navajo subsisted by means of hunting and gathering supplemented by some agriculture (Brugge, 1983, pp. 489-501). Extended family units, centered on matrilocal residence, lived in widely dispersed settlements. After livestock were first introduced into the region by Spanish settlers, a herding economy based on sheep and goats developed. The Navajo population and their area of settlement gradually expanded as new crops, animals, and technological innovations continued to be added to their subsistence base during the Spanish and American periods.

Like Native people throughout the Americas, Navajo endured many hardships at the hands of European and European American conquerors. For example, in the 19 th century an extended period of war resulted in nearly 9,000 Navajo being rounded up and forced to walk 300 miles to Hweeldi (Fort Sumner, New Mexico), where they were incarcerated by the U.S. Military from 1863 to 1868. On June 1,1868, a treaty was signed which established a reservation on a portion of the Navajo homeland to which the captives were allowed to return. After their return, the Navajo economy and population gradually recovered (see Bailey & Bailey [1986] on the reservation years). Trading posts began to flourish on the reservation in the late 1800s and a barter economy developed wherein male lambs and items of Navajo manufacture were traded for coffee, flour, lard, canned goods, and other food staples. During the closing decades of the 19th century, the first biomedical physicians began servicing portions of the Navajo reservation. Tracts of land were annexed to the original reservation at numerous times between 1878 and 1934, and separate tracts of land were subsequently secured for outlying Navajo groups—the Alamo (1946), Canoncito (1949), and Ramah (1956).

The early years of the 20th century were riddled with cultural and economic hardships resulting from drought and overgrazing. Coupled with fluctuations in livestock and wool prices, these factors resulted in a shift toward increased dependence on wage labor and the production of woven goods and silverwork for the offreservation market. To accommodate developing resource extraction-based industries, including coal and uranium, a federally designed centralized government—the Navajo Nation Council—was installed on the Navajo reservation in the 1920s (see Iverson [1981] on the development of the Navajo Nation). Federally mandated stock reductions diminished family herds in the 1930s, which resulted in increased dependence on wage labor on and off the reservation, as well as greater acceptance of non-Navajo religious beliefs and practices such as Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, and the Native American Church. Increased exposure to the non-Navajo world through military service and employment in war-related industries during World War II led to greater usage of government-run health care and educational facilities. The so-called "Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute" over an area of Arizona that both tribes consider to be ancestral homeland has monopolized enormous amounts of time and energy since the turn of the century.

In the face of these various changes and concerns, the Navajo Nation has experienced relatively high language retention, and Navajo tenets of philosophy are currently taught at all grade levels, including courses at Dine College. Navajo who are employed off the reservation or in towns on the reservation return to matrilineal family homes in remote areas as frequently as is possible in order to participate in family activities. Those in need of medical attention freely combine biomedical care and treatments administered in state-of-the-art facilities across the reservation with traditional care and treatments administered at home. Most Navajo who have adopted non-Navajo religious doctrines and practices still participate in traditional healing rituals held for themselves or for members of their extended families.

According to Navajo oral tradition, which relates their origin as successive emergence upward through a series of subterranean worlds, the Navajo universe preceded human existence. Thus, to understand philosophical beliefs underlying contemporary Navajo notions of gender and sexuality, it is necessary to consider first the view of the universe and the place of Navajo people within it documented in these accounts.

The Navajo origin and creation stories describe the preparation of the physical world and the creation of its inhabitants. Collectively they establish an ethnic identity for all Navajo, defining meaningful relationships between individual members of the community and between the community and the cosmos. Navajo consider themselves to be the Nihookaa Dine'e, having been created on the earth's surface by Asdzaa Nadleehe, "Changing Woman," the most highly revered of all Navajo Holy People and the inner form of the earth. Her continual maturation, death, and rebirth are mirrored in the changing seasons of the earth (birth is mirrored by spring, youth by summer, maturity by fall, and old age and death by winter). As its inner being, Changing Woman is considered the mother of all who dwell on the earth's surface. She directed the Nihookaa Dine'e to live within the geographical area demarcated by their four sacred mountains (O'Bryan, 1956, p. 112).

The space within which Navajo life is lived is organized on the paradigms established in the origin stories. Interconnection among all aspects of the world on the basis of these is a fundamental aspect of the "natural order" established by the Diyin Dine'e, "Navajo Holy People." Relationships between and among all entities are based on culturally sanctioned rules governing rights, prerogatives, and agency.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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