Modern history


Chapter 2


All across New Mexico, the threat of Navajo raiders gave life an undertow of anxiety. The settlers dwelled in a state of vigilance, always half-listening, scanning the sagebrush for movement. Everyone knew some family whose child or mother had been carried off. In the foothills, cairns often studded the pastures. Decorated with crosses or flowers, these markers memorialized shepherds who had been cut down. At a very young age, New Mexicans learned to hate and fear the word “Navajo.”

Other tribes preyed upon the New Mexican settlements as well. The Utes in the north, the Kiowas and Comanches in the east, the Apaches in the south. But the Navajos were the strongest, richest, and most creatively adaptable of all the raiding tribes. They were the ancient scourge of an ancient province. As a result of Navajo attacks, the very first Spanish colonial capital of New Mexico, a promising settlement on the Rio Grande called San Gabriel, had been quickly abandoned in 1610 and relocated to the safer remove of present-day Santa Fe. The word “Navajo”—a word of Pueblo Indian origin meaning “people of the great planted fields”—first appeared in a Spanish document in 1626. (The Navajo called themselves “the Diné,” which simply means “the people.”) An account from the early 1600s by a Spanish friar referred to “the Nabaju” as “a very bellicose people…who occupy all frontiers and surround us completely.”

In 1659, Fray Juan Ramirez referred to the Navajos as “heathens who kill Christians and carry off others alive to perish in cruel martyrdom.” A half century later, Governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdez condemned the Navajos for “their crimes, their audacity, and their reckless depredations upon this kingdom.”

The Spanish had tried for a time to Christianize the Navajos—literally chaining them to church pews, according to one account—but they would not tolerate Spanish missionaries. In 1672 a group of Navajos hauled a priest out the doors of his church, ripped off his clothes, then killed him at the base of an outdoor cross by smashing his head in with a bell. By 1750 the Spaniards had given up on all efforts to proselytize among these indios barbaros. In that year a priest dolefully noted that the Navajos “could not become Christians or stay in one place because they have been raised like deer.”

For centuries the Spanish had mounted retaliatory expeditions into Navajo country, to reclaim stolen livestock as well as to capture women and children to serve as slaves, but these military forays did little to stop the raids. The Navajo lands were so wrinkled, so mazelike, and so huge that the expeditions were scarcely worth the exertion; conquering the Navajos seemed as hopeless as converting them. The Navajo country, noted one Spanish chronicler in the 1630s, “is vaster than all the others…In journeying westward through this nation, one never reaches the end of it.”

The Navajos lived far away, yet paradoxically they seemed to be close at hand, as though the desert distances did not apply to them, as though miles alone could not check their peregrinations. It was the Navajo menace as much as anything else that made New Mexico so poor, so militarily anemic, and so unready to resist the coming American invasion. Manuel Armijo, the governor and general of New Mexico, said it best in an 1846 letter to his authorities in Mexico City. “The war with the Navajos,” he said, “is slowly consuming the Department, reducing to very obvious misery the District of the Southwest.”


It was odd, in a way, that the Navajo posed such a threat, for collectively they did not have a reputation for being particularly fierce or effective warriors. They seldom fought in large numbers, and they lacked the highly developed warrior societies typical among many Plains tribes. The Navajos avoided killing whenever possible, because theirs was a culture that had a deep-seated fear and revulsion of death. They wanted nothing to do with corpses or funerals or anything connected with mortality. When a person died inside a Navajo dwelling—the round, windowless, dome-roofed hogan made of mud and timber—the body had to be removed from the structure by bashing a hole in the north wall and pulling the corpse through it; then the hogan had to be destroyed. The taint could never be washed out. The presence of death led to witchcraft, it lured resentful ghosts and evil spirits, it upset the fragile order of things. The Navajos did not have a concept of the devil in any sort of Judeo-Christian sense. There was no single evil spirit permeating the world and counterpoised against good. But the ghosts of the dead were devilish enough. They were vexing and malicious and unimaginably frightening—and they were everywhere. They could even invade a person’s dreams.

The Navajos believed in a class of witches called “skinwalkers” who were said to put on wolf pelts and dig up graves. The skinwalkers could be seen prowling around at night on all fours—they had pallid white faces and red glowing eyes and chanted holy prayers backward to invoke evil deities. They desecrated graves and stole funerary trinkets and jewelry. They removed the dead person’s flesh and ground it up to make a lethal poison called “corpse powder,” which the skinwalkers blew into people’s faces, giving them the “ghost sickness.” Even a fingernail paring or a strand of hair from a dead person could be used by a skinwalker to perform diabolical things.

A people so unnerved by death could never be great warriors. Then, too, the Navajo social structure was even looser than that of most American Indian tribes. Their absence of any political authority, their lack of a capital or central gathering place, their fractured allegiance to some sixty individual clans and countless local outfits—such factors were not conducive to formulating military strategy on a large scale.

But the Navajos were perhaps the unparalleled masters of the raid. Small-scale warfare suited them. They were an evanescent people, proud thieves on horseback, adroit in the techniques of the swift attack and the quick disappearance. Usually the raids were carried out by young men thirsty for adventure and ambitious to accumulate new wealth. Often these exuberant young warriors rode off against the wishes of their fathers and uncles and the other older men of the tribe, who had already won their wealth and had lived long enough to understand that raids had far-reaching consequences.

Once on the warpath, the young men dismissed such talk and prepared themselves for battle. In the days before a raid, they sat in sweat lodges to cleanse themselves. They sang songs to Monster Slayer, the great war god of Navajo legend, chanting, “Our enemies shall die! The coyote and the crow and the wolves shall carry away every last morsel of their flesh!” They assembled stone clubs and fastened eagle feathers to their shields. They tattooed their bodies with menacing images. To make themselves symbolically invisible to the enemy, they sprinkled corn pollen over their shields. Then they pulled on their buckskin battle-armor and set off on horseback for the Spanish ranches to the east.

Navajo warriors could be quite skittish about their raids, and they sometimes sought the wisdom of hand-tremblers to divine the outcome of a contemplated attack. Other times they visited a stargazer, who would consult the heavens for answers by rubbing under his eyelids a preparation whose recipe included filmy water that had been painstakingly collected from the eyes of an eagle. The wives of warriors were under strict instructions not to leave their hogans until the men had returned, hopefully successful, from their martial adventures abroad—for if the women did stray from their homes, for whatever reason, it was widely believed that their husbands would encounter bad luck. If a coyote crossed their path, the warriors had to turn back. If they stepped on a bear track, if they saw a snake shedding its skin, if they accidentally ate during an eclipse, if they found to their dismay that one of their party was wearing his blanket with the stripes crossways—then the endeavor could be doomed. But if all went well, they reached their target and waited in the early-morning stillness. Just before dawn they descended, sending up the bloodcurdling cry. Within a few minutes they would take horses, cattle, women, children—anything they could drive off or scoop up in their dusty stampede.

Sometimes the purpose of the raid was to steal back a Navajo captive who had been taken by the New Mexicans. Liberating a Navajo slave was always cause for rejoicing—although often the captive, who perhaps had been sold into slavery as a young child and become acclimated to Spanish culture, might be terrified by the attacking horsemen and fearful of returning to a tribal life that existed only as a dim memory.

Mainly, though, the Navajo raiders were interested in obtaining sheep and goats. The Navajo, almost alone among American Indians of the West, were primarily a pastoral people—shepherds, shearers, eaters of mutton, drinkers of goat’s milk, master spinners of wool. Navajos followed the slow and watchful life known among anthropologists as transhumance, a methodical seminomadism built around the seasonal moving of flocks to higher and lower ground in search of grass. This way of life was, in fact, an ancient and widespread practice throughout the world but nearly unheard of in North America. As pastoralists, the Navajo lifestyle was in some sense more akin to that of ancient Greeks, Hebrews, and Arabs than to contemporary tribes of Native Americans.

The famous loomed wool blankets of the Navajos were among the finest in the world, patterned in bold, crisp geometric designs of red and black, and so tightly woven, it was often said, that they could hold water. (On the Santa Fe Trail, one Navajo blanket was worth ten buffalo robes.)

For the Navajos, everything revolved around the sheep. They talked directly to their flocks, gave them pollen to eat, and sang quaint songs to them on cold winter nights to protect them from freezing. “The sheep is your mother,” the Navajos told their children, “the sheep is life.” Most of their implements and artifacts were made from the hides, bones, and sinews of sheep and goats. Navajos slept on sheepskins. They made their carrying sacks from wool blankets sewn together with soapweed stalks. They ate every part of the animal—lung and liver, head and heart—even the blood, which they boiled and mixed with corn mush to make a thin, pinkish gruel. A special Navajo delicacy was sheep intestines tightly wound around a string of fat and roasted directly on the coals.

When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, the Navajos found that the tough and surefooted churro sheep which the conquistadors brought with them was perfectly suited to their harsh rock world. Originally adapted for the spare environment of upland Iberia, the spindly-legged churro could eat nearly anything and travel long distances and climb steep cliffs. The churro’s wool was tight and coarse, and because it contained little natural oil—other breeds of sheep grew hair often greasy with lanolin—it could be spun without needing washing.

The horse, which also came with the arrival of the Spanish, profoundly changed Navajo life as well. Perhaps most significantly, horses gave the Navajos the speed and mobility to become sheep robbers on a large scale, thinning the flocks of the long and vulnerable Rio Grande Valley with impunity. The horse thus accelerated their pastoral culture. Less than a century after the arrival of the Spanish, the sheep had become the Navajo currency, their mark of status, their food and clothing and livelihood, and the centerpiece of their bedouin life—a form of movable wealth.

But the Navajos were far more than raiders of flocks; they also grew crops, tended orchards, carried on a vigorous trade, staged elaborate rituals, and composed epic stories and songs of a fastidious tonal complexity. The Navajos had a hand in everything, it seemed. They were horse people, cattle people, farmers, hunters, gatherers, weavers. They even occasionally ventured out onto the prairie to hunt bison, like the Plains Indians. They were clear-eyed pragmatists and far-out mystics. They were not sedentary, like the Pueblos, but neither were they strictly nomadic, like the Utes. They were the great in-betweeners, hard to pin down, semiwanderers rooted to their land but moving widely over it from season to season to make the best use of a stark desert topography.

The Navajos, with their linguistic cousins, the Apaches, had ventured down the spine of the Rockies from the bitterness of Athapaska, in what is now northern Canada and Alaska. It’s tempting to imagine that they simply held a council in some godforsaken snowdrift beneath the northern lights and decided, once and for all, that they’d had enough of the cold. But in fact, their southward migration does not appear to have been a determined exodus; rather, it was undertaken slowly, in many haphazard and circuitous waves. The Athapaskans began flooding into the Southwest sometime around A.D. 1300. Late arrivals to the region, the Navajos split off from the Apaches and then quickly evolved from a primitive culture of hunter-gatherers to perhaps the most supple and multifarious of all the Southwestern peoples. Over a few short centuries, the Navajos improvised a life that borrowed something from every culture they encountered, spinning it into a society that was entirely their own.

Their creation story, called the Emergence, is thought by some anthropologists to be an allegory for their long migration from Canada. Retold in nightchants and rituals performed during the winter months, the Emergence captures much that is unique about the Navajo—their sense of having been wandering exiles through most of their early history, perpetual outsiders expelled from one country after another, forced to complete a complicated series of journeys through strange dark lands until they finally lit on the “glittering world,” as they called their present home; their tendency to view themselves as a tribe apart from others—a kind of chosen people of the Southwest, convinced of their special relationship to the gods and confident in the power of their rituals. And yet simultaneously, a tribe eager to absorb the ideas and implements of others, and to mingle with other peoples. If the Navajo indulged in a tribal pride that bordered on arrogance, it was an arrogance cut with an extraordinary impulse to accept other traditions, a natural ease for ushering in new ways and even new blood.

In a sense, the Navajo were the most “American” of the American Indians: They were immigrants, improvisationists, mongrels. They were mobile and restless, preferring to spread out as far as possible from one another over large swatches of country while still remaining within the boundaries of their land. They inhaled the essence of other cultures, taking what they liked and adapting it to their own ends.

And they were never finished. Navajos hated to complete anything—whether it was a basket, a blanket, a song, or a story. They never wanted their artifacts to be too perfect, or too closed-ended, for a definitive ending cramped the spirit of the creator and sapped the life from the art. So they left little gaps and imperfections, deliberate lacunae that kept things alive for another day. To them, comprehensiveness was tantamount to suffocation. Aesthetically and literally, Navajos always left themselves an out.

Even today, Navajo blankets often have a faint imperfection designed to let the creation breathe—a thin line that originates from the center and extends all the way to the edge, sometimes with a single thread dangling from its border; tellingly, the Navajos call this intentional flaw the “spirit outlet.”

In their raids as well, they never completed their work. With an eye on the next season, Navajo warriors were careful not to take all the sheep from the Spanish settlements they attacked; they invariably left several ewes and rams behind, to insure that a fine new flock would be there to rob next year.

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