Navajo Rugs

In the American Southwest today one of the most popular art forms sought by museums, collectors, and tourists is the Navajo rug. While the Navajo had been weaving for centuries and their works were traded over a wide area, the development of the Navajo rug really started in 1881 with the arrival of the railroad. The railroad connected the Navajo with the globalized market for native crafts. This market, however, was controlled by non-Indian traders who held federal licenses. The idea of allowing Indians to participate in a free market ran counter to the “civilization” programs run by the federal government in which it was assumed that Indian people were somehow a “dependent” people who must be guided, managed, and controlled by the more “civilized” non-Indians.


The incorporation of the Navajo into a global market meant that the weavers were increasingly incorporated into the cash economy of this market. The period from 1875 to 1890 is generally considered a transition period for the Navajo weavers. During this time they began to use commercial American-made yarns known collectively as Germantown. These yarns were dyed with aniline (a dye derived from coal tar) and provided primarily in 4-ply.

It was also during this transition period that a new element was added to Navajo weaving: the pictorial weaving. Items such as cows, trains, American flags, and other items began to appear in the weavings.

By 1887 the Indian superintendent for the Navajo estimated that two-thirds of their weavings-primarily blankets-were now being sold. Two years later, the Indian superintendent reports that while there were just nine federally licensed traders on the reservation, there were about 30 trading posts located just off the reservation. He noted that the

“proximity of trading posts has radically changed their native costumes and modified many of the earlier barbaric traits, and also affords them good markets for their wool, peltry, woven fabrics, and other products.”

Hubbell 1880s

The Hubbell Trading Post is shown above.

By 1890, the Navajo were producing about $25,000 worth of trade goods each year. Their involvement with this larger market had an impact on native crafts. Since pottery and basketry did not have the same commercial appeal as other crafts, the people were producing less.

The Rug Period of Navajo Weaving is usually dated from 1890 to 1920. At this time, the weavers began making thicker weavings which could be used as rugs for sales outside of the reservation. Regional styles began to develop which were associated with traders or trading posts. The traders, sensitive to the tastes of non-Indians in distant markets, actively collaborated with the weavers to produce designs which would sell. One of the design features which was introduced in 1890 was the use of borders.

One of the major supporters of the Navajo rugs was the Harvey Company which featured them in their eating houses and newsstands along the route of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. In 1900, the Harvey Company established the Indian Building in Albuquerque which featured Navajo weavers plying their craft so that the tourists could watch. Fred Harvey also contracted with the trader Lorenzo Hubbell to take his entire output of good quality Navajo weavings. Harvey insisted that the business needed standardization with regard to size, quality, and price.

Since the traders, particularly the Harvey Company, frowned on the use of Germantown yarn, the rugs tended to be woven with coarse handspun wool which was either dyed with aniline or left in its natural color. In 1897, J.B. Moore, who had the trading post at Crystal, New Mexico, began sending wool east to be washed and carded. This thoroughly cleaned wool could be more easily spun and consequently the technical quality of the rugs woven by the weavers in his area improved.

In addition to providing his weavers with cleaned wool, Moore also had a friend who designed some new styles using some traditional Navajo figures combined with non-Navajo motifs such as swastikas and frets which were common in the oriental rugs of this period. The patterns were enclosed by borders and favored natural wool colors: black, gray, brown, tan, and white.

Trader Juan Lorenzo Hubbell in the Ganado area encouraged weavers to use traditional Navajo designs from earlier time periods. In his trading post he hung watercolor design samples to help inspire the weavers.

Hubbell Blankets

The inside of the Hubbell Trading Post is shown above. Note the designs on the walls.

Razzle Dazzle

Shown above is a small rug in the razzle-dazzle style woven by a young girl and sold at the Hubbell Trading Post.

Ganado Red

Shown above is an example of the Ganado Red style from my personal collection.

The Crystal tradition led to the distinctive style known as Two Gray Hills, named for the trading post on the east side of the Chuska Mountains south of Shiprock. At Two Gray Hills, the old Crystal style became elaborated and the technical excellence of spinning and weaving improved.

Two Grey Hills

Shown above is a small Two Gray Hills rug from my personal collection.

The borders introduced by the Crystal tradition spread throughout the reservation and by 1910 could be found on most rugs.

In 1898, Navajo weavers responded to the patriotic fever of the Spanish-American War by making American flag blankets.

In 1903, John Lorenzo Hubbell began to provide Navajo weavers with commercially processed wool at his trading post in Ganado, Arizona. Other traders soon followed suit.

In 1910, the United States government in its infinite wisdom introduced Rambouillet sheep to the reservation. These sheep had oily, short-staple, crimpy wool rather than the long-staple wavy wool of the Navajo sheep. It is difficult, some say impossible, for a Navajo weaver to clean this wool with the traditional hand washing. Rugs woven from this wool were coarse and the whites tended to have a dirty gray cast. This helped bring Navajo weaving to a new low and by 1920 the demand for Navajo rugs and the prices paid for them had declined significantly.

In 1931, a group of traders, concerned about the protection of the Navajo rug, met in Gallup, New Mexico and formed the United Indian Traders Association. They advocated that the following standards to be used for Navajo blankets and rugs:

“Material used shall be virgin wool or virgin angora wool, the same shall be hand-washed, hand-carded and hand-dyed, the warp shall be all wool and hand-spun, the wool shall be all wool and hand-spun and the blanket shall be hand-woven by an Indian.”

In 1932, a number of Navajo sheep ranchers attended the Denver stock show and as a result they acquired a prize-winning Dorset ram in an attempt to improve the quality of wool available for blankets.

Today, Navajo rugs continue to be popular and continue to battle against cheap, imported imitations which use Navajo designs or designs which pretend to be Navajo. There are well over a thousand weavers on the Navajo reservation who do museum quality work and tourists can obtain high quality rugs at most of the trading posts on the reservation. The Hubbell Trading Post, which played an important role in the development of twentieth century Navajo rugs, is currently operated by the National Park Service. Tourists visiting Hubbell can not only purchase high quality rugs, but can also watch the weavers in action. While it is not uncommon for tourists to grumble at what they perceive as the high prices for these rugs, keep in mind that most weavers make well under minimum wage for the hours they spend at the loom.

The Navajo Reservation in the 1950s

The Navajo Reservation with its tribal headquarters in Window Rock, Arizona, is the largest Indian reservation in the United States. During the 1950s, the Navajo had to deal with an American government which was firmly committed to the destruction of the Indian way of life and to the transfer of any possible reservation wealth to large non-Indian corporations.

Window Rock

Economic Development:

By the 1950s, the American government had returned to the failed Indian policies of the late nineteenth century with a focus on assimilation of the individual Indians into American society and to a transfer of potential wealth on Indian reservations from the Indians to non-Indian corporations.

Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Long Range Rehabilitation Project in 1950 which appropriated $90 million dollars to be spent on the reservation. Projects under this act included the construction of schools, housing, and hospital; the construction and maintenance of roads; the construction of sewer systems; soil and water conservation; irrigation works; and the provision of electricity. On the Navajo reservation this money was used to prepare Navajo country for private industry, and to give public finance capability to tribal government, so that it could manage the ‘grooming process’ and maintain the Navajo labor force during busts.

Traditionally, one of the major economic forces on the reservation had been Indian-made handicrafts, particularly Navajo blankets and rugs. In 1950, the Navajo Tribal Council approved the construction of a wool-processing plant at Leupp which would benefit the Navajo weavers.

The sale of Navajo handicraft items was developed by traders. In 1950, non-Indian traders at the Sacred Mountain Trading Post began to seek out active Navajo potters in the area north of Flagstaff. They soon found ten women who brought in a number of examples of their work. The traders began to encourage pottery making among the Navajo and to find markets for it.

In 1956, the Navajo Tribal Council appropriated $300,000 to subsidize companies that were willing to locate on the reservation. While four companies were attracted by the tribal payroll subsidies and other inducements, three closed their facilities as soon as they had exhausted their subsidies. Corporations had little interest in actually helping the Navajo.  

Resource Development:

During the 1950s, the intention of the American government was to terminate all Indian reservations, particularly those with timber resources. Fortunately, the Navajo Reservation does not have abundant timber resources and so it was not slated for immediate termination. However, the Unite States sought to transfer other resources on the Navajo reservation-particularly water, uranium, and coal-to non-Indian corporations for development. The Bureau of Indian Affairs worked actively on behalf of non-Indian corporations to develop Navajo resources for the benefit of the corporations, not the Navajo.

In 1952, the Navajo Tribal Council, encouraged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, approved a mineral extraction agreement with Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corporation. This agreement allowed the company access to uranium deposits near the town of Shiprock. In exchange, the company was to employ 100 Navajo miners who were to work at about 67% of the prevailing non-reservation underground mining wages. In order to increase its profits and reduce its operating costs, the company simply ignored worker safety regulations. The underground mine was supposed to have ventilation, but the ventilation fans did not work. Both the company and the United States Atomic Energy Commission failed to inform the Navajo workers about the known health risks involved in working in uranium mines.

By 1954, the Kerr-McGee Corporation was mining enough uranium from its mines on the Navajo reservation that it built a processing plant for the ore at Shiprock.

Economic development in the arid southwest requires water. While the Supreme Court in the Winters Doctrine had clearly indicated the priority for Indian water rights, most state and federal agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, simply ignored this ruling. Water rights reemerged in 1953 when the United States petitioned to intervene in Arizona v. California declaring that

“the United States of America asserts that the rights of the use of water claimed on behalf of the Indians and Indian tribes set forth in this petition are prior and superior to the rights to the use of water claimed by the parties to this cause in the Colorado River.”

The states responded angrily to this assertion of Indian water rights. In response to political pressure, the Justice Department recalled the petition and removed the reference to “prior and superior.”

The Navajo responded to the change in language by hiring their own attorney and arguing before the Special Master that this change was clear evidence that the Justice Department was not representing the best interest of Indians and the government is therefore violating its fiduciary responsibility. The court did not accept this argument.

In 1955, the Navajo tribe hired an outside consultant to oversee its oil and gas leases. The tribe also had a study done of potential oil and gas properties on Navajo land. The study recommended that the existing lease arrangements be replaced with partnerships. In response, the tribal council declared a moratorium on new leases.

The following year, the Navajo drew up a contract with the Delhi-Taylor Oil Company to explore and develop five million acres of reservation land. The tribe and the company were to split any profits on a 50-50 basis. While the tribe felt that this joint venture was valid because the Navajo tribe was the owner of the lands, the Secretary of the Interior Fred A. Seaton called it ‘risky,’ probably illegal, and forbade it. The oil industry waged a publicity campaign against the deal. As usual, the government supported non-Indian corporate interests.

In 1956, the Navajo opened up general bidding on 230,000 acres of oil-rich reservation lands in Utah. When the bidding ended, the tribe collected $12 million in lease money and 12.5% of the gross value of any oil produced. Instead of distributing the royalties as per capita payments, the tribe invested the money in education and economic development.

In 1957, Utah Mining and Construction negotiated a contract with the Navajo to allow the company to strip-mine coal just south of the San Juan River. The Arizona Public Service Company agreed to build a coal-fired electric generating station next to the mine.

Removal and Relocation:

As a part of the government’s program to terminate reservations and force Indians to assimilate, the Bureau of Indian Affairs forcibly relocated Indians to urban areas. During this era, many Navajo families were relocated to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, and other cities. Unlike other reservations, however, the Navajo also faced removal to other reservations and removal from public lands which they had traditionally used.

In 1950, resettlement of Navajo families from the Navajo Reservation to the Colorado River Reservation began. Over a two-year time period, 92 families were resettled.

In 1953, the Navajo were removed from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands around Butler wash and tributary areas in Utah. To notify the Navajo herders who had traditionally used these lands, the BLM simply posted notices on sagebrush and dead trees. The notices warned that the BLM was about to impound the Navajo livestock, but the BLM seemed unaware that most Navajo could not read. In the removal process, the Navajo men were handcuffed, their stock herded onto trucks, and their hogans burned. Some people reported that they were whipped and some reported that their livestock was killed.

Some Navajo filed a complaint against the Bureau of Land Management and received $100,000 for lost livestock. In answering the complaint, the BLM could not provide convincing testimony about being aware of problems in legality of how they handled the situation. While the judge ordered further investigation, nothing came from it.


During the last quarter of the nineteenth century a pan-Indian religious movement which would become known as the Native American Church developed on many reservations. In spite of its Christian overtones, Christian missionaries and the government strongly opposed this movement. Since the Native American Church used peyote as a sacrament, the opposition focused on this substance, claiming that it was addictive and thus should be banned. While the Native American Church was popular among many reservation Navajo, opposition to it came from two fronts: traditionals who pointed out that this was not a traditional Navajo religion, and Christians who warned that it was Satanic, evil, and addictive. As a result, the religion was banned on the reservation as well as in the surrounding states.

In 1954, the Navajo Tribal Council held two and a half days of hearings to reconsider its 1940 anti-peyote ordinance. Anthropologists, pharmacologists, and peyotists testified on behalf of the use of peyote. The council took no action on this matter. In 1958, however, the Navajo Nation enacted an ordinance making it an offense to bring peyote onto the reservation. Members of the Native American Church responded by filing suit against the tribe in federal court.

In 1958, in Shiprock, New Mexico on the Navajo reservation, a Native American Church service was raided. Shorty Duncan, William P. Tsosie, and Frank Hann, Jr. were arrested and assessed a fine and a jail penalty under the Navajo tribe’s anti-peyote ordinance.

In 1959, in the Native American Church versus the Navajo Tribal Council, the Court of Appeals ruled that the First Amendment did not bind the Tribal Council. The Navajo Tribal Council had passed an ordinance which made it an offense to use peyote. The ordinance was passed because the Tribal Council did not feel that the use of peyote was a part of traditional Navajo religious practices. The Court felt that the First Amendment applied only to Congress and that it was made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment. Since the Tribes were not States, the Court ruled, the First Amendment did not apply to them. The court also declared:

“Indian tribes are not states. They have a status higher than that of states. They are subordinate and dependent nations possessed of all power as such only to the extent that they have expressly been required to surrender them by the superior sovereign, the United States.”

Tribal Sovereignty:

Traditionally, the Navajo had never been politically unified. By the 1950s, a time when the United States was attempting to get rid of Indian tribes, the Navajo were in the process of creating a tribal government and expressing themselves as a sovereign entity as described in the U.S. Constitution.

Annie Doge

Annie Dodge Wauneka (shown above) became the first woman elected to the Navajo Tribal Council in 1951.

In 1955, the Navajo Tribal Council formally recognized and incorporated the chapter system into tribal government.

In Williams versus Lee, the Supreme Court ruled in 1959 that state courts did not have jurisdiction in a matter involving a non-Indian in Arizona suing a Navajo reservation Indian for goods sold on the reservation. According to the Court:

“To allow the exercise of state jurisdiction here would undermine the authority of the tribal courts over Reservation affairs and hence would infringe on the right of the Indians to govern themselves.”

In 1959, the Navajo Nation formed its own judiciary. The tribal courts, which had been under the direct control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, were now controlled by the tribal council. There was now a trial court with seven judges and an appeals court with three judges. Jurisdiction was limited to civil and domestic problems, and offenses committed by Indians on the reservation in violation of the Navajo Law and Order Code. Law professor Charles Wilkinson writes:

“A foundation of Navajo justice is Navajo common law, similar method but not result to English and American common law, in which the judges develop legal rules that reflect the society’s history, traditions, economy, and natural resources.”

At this time, the Navajo Tribal Council also took control over the Navajo Police from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Navajo Weaving

Even the most casual tourist who travels through the Navajo lands of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah cannot help but notice the abundance of fine weavings commonly called “rugs” which are offered for sale at roadside stands, tourist traps, restaurants, museums, and fine arts galleries. Navajo weavings are some of the best-known and most easily recognized American Indian art forms.

Navajo weaving trading post

According to the oral tradition, at some point in the mythological past, Spider Woman taught Navajo men how to make an upright loom and then instructed Navajo women on how to use this loom to weave beauty. Beauty is an important part of Navajo culture-it is not a matter of being surrounded by beauty, but being involved in the process of beauty.

Navajo weaving is not just a way of making cloth or textiles: it is a form of artistic expression. While oral tradition gives Spider Woman credit for teaching weaving to the Navajo, the archaeology suggests an additional dimension to the story. Sometime in the 16th century the Navajo learned weaving from the Pueblo people in the Southwest and for more than a century, Navajo weavings closely resembled those of the Pueblos. Both the Navajo and the Pueblos at this time wove the same kinds of clothing.

Navajo Manta

There are some major differences between Navajo weaving and Pueblo weaving: in Pueblo culture, the men do the weaving, while in Navajo culture weaving is generally women’s work.

Among the Navajo, it is the process of weaving, not necessarily the final product, which is important. Weaving provides an opportunity to make individual decisions, to discipline one’s thought process, to practice self-control, patience, and tenacity, and to develop one’s skill. The process of weaving is closely attuned to spiritual concepts. Working at her loom, the weaver seeks to create a single whole that blends fine and bold contrasts in color, feature, and design. In this way, the weaver seeks to emulate the process by which the Holy People created the world.  

When a Navajo weaver sits down before her loom to start a new weaving, she has a design in her mind-it is not written down and it is not a design which she has done before. Navajo weavings are always designed anew and the designs are always changing, moving, and flowing. The Navajo weavers see the process of weaving and their designs as a form of communication. In this way, the process of Navajo weaving is like a language with codes and conventions that carry meanings embedded in specific historical, cultural and familial contexts.


Weaving with cotton was common in the southwest prior to the arrival of the Spanish. After the arrival of the Spanish, the Navajo acquired churro sheep and began weaving with wool. Within a relatively short period of time they became proficient in weaving wool and by the early 18th century they were already selling their textiles to both Spanish and Pueblo communities.

During the 19th century, Navajo wearing blankets were traded throughout the Southwest and into adjacent culture areas. These blankets are woven wider than long and are worn by both men and women, draped around the shoulders. Outside of the Southwest, these blankets became prestige items and are often referred to as “chiefs’ blankets”.  These blankets were so tightly woven that they would shed water. The use of indigo dyes and costly yarns meant that they commanded a high price. On the Great Plains, only those people with significant resources could afford such a blanket, thus the designation of Chief blankets.

Chief Blanket

The Chief blanket is based on a simple striped weaving pattern. The blankets had dark horizontal stripes which were organized into a solid broad band at the blanket’s center. At the top and bottom there were bands which were half as wide as the center band. Between the center and the border bands there would be narrower alternating black and white stripes.

The earliest known Chief blanket, dating to about 1775, consists of evenly spaced alternating brown and white stripes. There are four rows of narrow stripes at each end. By the early part of the 19th century, Navajo weavers broadened the stripes giving them an additional sense of depth. Outlining the horizontal dark brown stripes with deeply saturated indigo blue added even more depth to the design.

By 1850 many Navajo weavers had adopted a technique known as tapestry weave and added geometric forms to the Chief blanket. The horizontal plane is interrupted with twelve vibrant red rectangular bars. When the blanket is draped about the body, the vertical elements are visible down the back and front of the wearer.

About 1860, Navajo weavers began adding terraced triangles and diamonds to the design of the Chief blanket.

By the end of the 19th century, Navajo weavers were using a two-faced weave. This means that one pattern could be developed on the front, and a different pattern, usually one featuring simple stripes, could be done on the reverse side.

In addition to blankets, Navajo weavers also produced a number of other woven items, including sash belts, garters, saddle cinches, women’s dresses, knitted socks, and leggings.

Navajo Blanket

While in today’s market, Navajo rugs are most frequently woven and traded, this is an aspect of Navajo weaving that emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century in response to a globalized market for American Indian goods. This will be discussed in a separate essay.  

Navajo Sandpaintings

Most Navajo ceremonies are focused on health: on healing someone who is ill or on maintaining health. Navajo ceremonies, often referred to as “sings” or “chants,” are often a reenactment of the creation of the world through myth, song, prayer, and drama. The patient is placed in this recreated world which closely identifies the patient with the powers of the Holy People.  

To illustrate the songs used in the ceremonies, the Navajo use sandpaintings or drypaintings. These are created by dribbling colors (made from charcoal and pulverized minerals) on the ground using the first and second fingers and thumb of the right hand. The painting is started at the center and includes symbolic representations of the Holy People. The sandpaintings attract the Holy People: powerful supernatural entities which can cure and bless.

Navajo Sandpainting 1

Shown above is a sandpainting photographed by Edward Curtis.

The composition and design of the Navajo sandpaintings are static; that is, the designs used in the sandpaintings are rigidly established. If they are to be effective in bringing about a cure or in maintaining health, the designs must be created without significant change or alteration. The sandpaintings are the exact pictorial representations of supernaturals who are called by their likenesses in the sandpaintings and are compelled to cure under the rules of the universe. If the ritual rules are followed exactly as prescribed by the Holy People, the supernaturals will bring about the cure.

The painting is a vessel which receives its power when the singer sprinkles it with pollen. At this point it becomes an altar. The patient then sits upon the painting during the ceremony. The sandpainting is the medium through which the illness is transferred out of the patient and the health and perfection of the Holy People enter into the patient. As a force in the healing and ceremonial process, the sandpainting is not just to be seen, but it is to be absorbed. When it is absorbed, the beauty and harmony of the sandpainting can help heal the mind and the body. The patient does not just visualize nature or the environment; the patient becomes absorbed in its reformulated harmony and beauty.

Navajo Sandpainting 2

Sandpaintings range from one foot in diameter to over twenty feet in diameter. The larger sandpaintings may take more than a dozen people most of a day to complete. In the larger sandpaintings, the hataali (medicineman or chanter) primarily directs and criticizes as many as a dozen or more young men who are actually creating the sandpainting, each working on a specific part of the overall painting.

Navajo Hatali

A photograph of a Navajo hataali by Edward Curtis is shown above.

There are two basic types of Navajo sandpaintings: those that belong to the rhythm of the night and those that belong to the rhythm of the day. Sandpaintings belonging to the night are started after sunset and are destroyed before sunrise. Those that belong to the day are begun at sunrise and are destroyed before sunset.

The sandpaintings used in the ceremonies are always temporary: immediately following the ceremony, sand is swept up and carried away.  The destruction of the sandpainting is also a ceremonial action. The hataali, using a slender wand, begins with the figure in the east and then obliterates the painting in a sunwise fashion. Once the design is no longer recognizable, the assistants gather the sand in their blankets, carry it to a little distance from the hogan and throw it away.

The five colors used in the sandpaintings usually symbolize direction. White (made from white sandstone) represents the east and is associated with males and the dawn; yellow (made from yellow sandstone) represents the west and is associated with females and twilight; black (made from charcoal) represents the north and is associated with males and night; blue (made from a mixture of blue black and white) represents the south and is associated with females and daylight; red (made from red sandstone) is used to represent sunshine.

Sandpaintings contain supernatural powers which can be dangerous. Misuse of a sandpainting may bring serious consequences: blindness, illness, and perhaps death to the individual and drought and destruction to the society. Thus permanent copies are not made as evil forces and beings might be able to find them and change them from a force for healing to a force for creating illness. For this reason, there is opposition to photographing or copying these paintings in any permanent medium. Many of those which have been photographed, including those made in museums, were deliberately incomplete or in error so that they do not have any spiritual power.  

The Navajo, Sheep, and the Federal Government

During the 1930s, the conservation policies of the federal government collided with Navajo culture. What the Navajo perceived as the callous disregard of the government for sheep and goats-both important in Navajo culture-resulted in resentments toward the American government which are still present today.  

Domesticated sheep and goats were not native to the American southwest, but were initially brought into the region by the Spanish colonists who introduced them to the Pueblo and Athabascan-speaking Indians. The adoption of sheep by the Athabascans had a profound impact on one group in northwestern New Mexico who became known as “Apaches de Nabaju” or the Navajo. The addition of sheep husbandry to their farming and raiding economy led to the early divergence of Navajo culture from southern Apache culture.

The first sheep which were adopted by the Navajo were the Churro breed which is an Andalusian stock. The Churro provide a long, smooth, and relatively greaseless wool which was easily hand-spun. Over time, other breeds were introduced to the area and interbred with the Churro. Today there are relatively few purebred Churro sheep among the Navajo, although there is a movement to increase the number of Churro sheep because of the demand for its wool by Navajo weavers.

Navajo Sheep and Weaver

Sheep quickly became an important part of Navajo culture. Sheep were not simply an impersonal herd on the hoof: for the Navajo, each animal had its own personality and characteristics. In addition, the wealth of a clan was counted by the size of its flock of sheep.

During the early years of the Navajo reservation, goats were more important than sheep with regard to subsistence value, as they supplied milk and cheese as well as meat. However, sheep were important to the trading economy as they provided the raw material (wool) for trade items (blankets, rugs). Wool was also used to make clothing.

Navajo Map

Shown above is a map of the Navajo Reservation.

In 1934, federal bureaucrats determined that Navajo Nation land was being overgrazed and ordered that the Navajo herds be reduced. As a part of the stock reduction program on the Navajo Reservation, 148,000 goats and 50,000 sheep were sold. Not all of the goats could be delivered to the railhead, therefore some were slaughtered and the dried meat given back to the Navajo. Other goats were simply shot and left to rot while some were shot and partially cremated by soaking them with gasoline and lighting it. In some instances, federal agents went out to the herds and often shot the animals before the eyes of astonished, grieving families. For the Navajo, this uncaring attitude toward a valuable resource seemed almost incomprehensible. The women, who were the owners of the herds, intensely criticized and condemned the government program.  

In carrying out the government’s stock reduction programs, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) failed to understand Navajo concepts of stock ownership. The BIA was accustomed to assuming that the flocks are family owned, that is, they were owned by the male head of household. Since Navajo women owned large herds this meant that women soon found that their flocks were being credited to their husbands.

Non-Navajo conservationists advocated the reduction in goats because the animals had little market value. They did not understand that in a subsistence economy, such as that of the Navajo, goats were important as a dependable source of food. Navajo families could drink goat’s milk and eat goat cheese and meat while reserving their sheep to breed or barter at the local trading post.

Concerned about the damage caused by over-grazing on the Hopi and Navajo reservations, the Bureau of Indian Affairs conducted a survey in 1935 which showed that the land could support about 560,000 sheep units. Navajo flocks at this time were in excess of 1 million sheep units.

In 1936, Navajo women rebelled against BIA pressure to reduce the size of their sheep herds. At Kayenta, 250 Navajo gathered. While most of those present were men, Denehotso Hattie, a woman almost blind from trachoma, was the leader. She pointed her finger at the new Indian superintendent for the reservation and denounced the government plan for range management.

In general the BIA, tended to ignore long-established cultural patterns regarding livestock management and they often disparaged local knowledge and cultural understandings of the environment. With regard to implementing the livestock reduction program, they refused to solicit or listen to Navajo advice. Finally, BIA officials tended to be sexist in that they disregarded the role of women in Navajo society.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs established land management and grazing districts on the Hopi and Navajo reservations in 1937. Both Navajo and Hopi sheep herds were to be reduced by 10%. For people who measured their wealth in the size of their flocks, the idea of reducing them seemed to be cruel and bizarre.

In order to obtain the appearance of Navajo support for livestock reduction, the Agency Superintendent brought together about 70 specially selected Navajo leaders and then encouraged-some would say, coerced-them into voting themselves as the new Navajo Tribal Council. The strategy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was to create a new governing body which would enact and enforce legislation to require the Navajo people to conform to grazing regulations. The new council had 70 members with each member representing a new voting district. In opposition to the Council, J.C. Morgan organized the Navajo Progressive League which vowed to form a representative council.

Following the formation of the new tribal council, the Navajo Tribal Council drafted a set of grazing regulations designed to meet Navajo needs. These were then submitted to the Secretary of the Interior for review and approval.

While the number of Navajo sheep and goats decreased during the 1940s, the conflicts between traditional livestock methods and those imposed on them by the bureaucracy have remained.