Utah: Navajo


Navajo is the largest reservation in the U.S. at 27,000 square miles spanning Arizona, New Mexico and Utah – larger than the state of West Virginia. More than .5M acres are forested, and Navajo lands contain natural resources like oil, gas, coal and uranium underground. Their population is second only to the Cherokee. 

The Navajo people traditionally believe they are safe within the four sacred mountains that bound their reservation — Mt. Taylor, San Francisco Peak, Blanca Peak and the La Plata Range. This is the place of their origin/creation stories, following their emergence to Earth’s surface from other worlds below. 

The Navajo call themselves “Diné,” meaning “The People.” About 8,000 Navajo lived in the Southwest in 1680. Although influenced by Anasazi culture of the Southwest, they came from the North. The Navajo language is from the Athapascan linguistic family that originated in Northern Canada and Alaska. 

Nomads in constant search of food for survival, they eventually overran the Puebloans in New Mexico, from whom they learned farming, weaving and various crafts. Banditry was the cornerstone of the Navajo economy for decades. They were willing to both dominate and accept other cultures and people, allowing them to become the largest and most pervasive tribe in the Southwest.  

The Navajo were considered to have a keen intellect and adapted themselves by using tools provided by other cultures. They stole not only ideas but the craftsmen and artisans of other tribes to teach new technology to their people. But after Spanish settlers arrived, the Navajo became accomplished horsemen and goat/sheep herders. The Spanish used the Navajo for slave labor and tried to convert them to Catholicism, which led to constant skirmishes.  

The Navajo traditionally lived in widely scattered buildings called hogans, rather than pueblo-like communities. After the U.S. acquired Arizona and New Mexico in 1848, the government tried to eradicate the Navajo people. 

Today: Historically, there was substantial water, but today much of the Navajo land is arid. The last century of overgrazing and misuse of underground water by power companies and mining operations have diminished both their land and water. Once a sustainable environment, 30% of Navajo residents must haul drinking water, travelling up to 48 miles on average. Just as many homes also lack complete plumbing. It would take an investment of more than $700 million to get everyone on the reservation hooked up with safe tap water and basic sanitation. There are only 13 grocery stores for the entire Navajo Nation, and at least 50% of the people travel off-reservation to buy food. One in five Navajo has diabetes.  

The Navajo Nation has more than 300,000 enrolled tribal members, with about 173,600 living on the reservation. Unemployment is about 15%, but more than 37% of Navajo Nation residents live below the poverty level. The Navajo keep their traditions alive through storytelling, preserved trading posts, jewelry and other crafts, music, Pow Wows and prayer. Unlike many other tribes, the Navajo have preserved their language through the years, with 76% speaking Navajo. 

Though underfunded, there are many schools on the Navajo Nation, ranging from state-run public schools to Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) operated schools to private charters. There are also two higher education institutions: Diné College and the Navajo Technical Institute.  

Overcrowded housing, lack of access to water, inadequate healthcare and transportation led the Navajo Nation to suffer one of the highest infection rates during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Indian Health Service (I.H.S.) and its subsidiary (the Navajo Area I.H.S.) provides care for more than 244,000 Natives with only four 222-bed inpatient hospitals in Chinle, Crownpoint, Gallup, Kayenta and Shiprock. There are also 7 health centers, 5 part-time health stations and a variety of tribal health systems serving the Navajo people.