The Diné might be the most versatile and adaptable of all Peoples in North America. Believed by the Western World to have broken away from their ancestral homelands in Alaska and Northern Canada at least 800 years ago, the Diné were once a nomadic group that ceased migrating southward upon arriving in the high desert plateaus of what is now Northeastern Arizona and Northern New Mexico.
Encountering the Utes, Pueblo Peoples of the Southwest, and later the very earliest Spanish settlers, they gave up their nomadic ways for the dual lifestyles of being raiders and semi-sedentary farmer-ranchers. They resourcefully incorporated the ideas and beliefs of the local tribes, building upon them with their own concepts in such diverse realms as spirituality, animal husbandry, art, and water conservation.
The Navajo Nation encompasses over 27,000 sq miles in the American Southwest, more land than that of the next 6 largest reservations in the United States combined. Their tribal rolls stand at 300,000 individuals, also making them the largest tribe by population. The three largest towns of Tuba City, Shiprock, and the Window Rock Municipal Area each have populations of less than 10,000. To live as a traditional Navajo on the homelands means being rural; it requires existing in one of the remotest places in all of the Lower 48 States.
It is sunny and dry in the Navajo Nation, so much so that the Dine` have a simple mantra, Water Is Life. They do not take it for granted. Today, while modern wells and the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority have alleviated the immediacy of the threat regarding water access for basic needs, droughts are almost constant and still threaten crops and livestock. Over 30% of households do not have running water, which means someone has to travel to the Chapter House or nearby well for potable household water. Some years, dust storms are pulverizing. The lack of water shows in the lack of vegetation, especially forests. Absent tall trees, the views everywhere are phenomenally long distant and sweeping.
These dry conditions also make for lands that are famous for the revealed underlying sandstone strata layers, which form gorgeously surreal mesas, cliffs, and canyons in places like Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Lake Powell (south shore), and Chaco Canyon. If and when the monsoons arrive, the high desert and canyon landscapes become shaded in velvet greens and sage colors, lush with life.
The Diné of today are still very much guided by their traditions that follow the seasons, especially their winter ceremonies, and by family relations, which are established by clan and dominated by matriarchal organizational practices. As on all Native American reservations, the social challenges are profound—incredibly high unemployment and severe poverty, substance abuse, domestic abuse, substandard housing, their best and brightest sometimes not returning after going off to college, the loss of fluent speakers of the Diné Language.
Yet, they can be hardy, doggedly resilient, deeply spiritual and take great pride in their identity, qualities necessary to overcome these threats and perhaps learned during nomadic wandering times.
The closing prayer of the Navajo Blessingway Ceremony is another traditional mantra for the Diné “I Walk in Beauty,” said four times. With that, perhaps they understand and embrace the positive in ways we still are not able to and might never comprehend.