A Glimpse into the Native American Narrative (prologue)

Hello, blog-readers! Our names are Gwyneth, Maggie, and Jane, and we’re here to talk about our upcoming Senior Project visiting the Navajo and White Mountain Apache Native American reservations in New Mexico and Arizona. Along with those two reservations, we will also be visiting other sites, such as Taos Pueblos, Santa Fe, Chinle, and the Canyon De Chelley. Our guide and mentor is Ed Cunicelli, a freelance photographer and parent of a recent alum. Ed’s photography for Johns Hopkins Center for Native American Health has taken him to these areas many times before, allowing him to have established strong connections and relationships on the reservations. One of us will be posting to this blog daily about our experiences, and hopefully will be able to attach some photos in order to further illustrate our day-to-day activities.

We are super excited to head off this Saturday to start our adventure. This idea has been long in the making; ever since we had the opportunity to see Ed’s photos from his Westtown assembly this fall, we have been captivated by the idea of getting a glimpse into an often neglected, but fundamental narrative in our country’s history. In order to prepare for our trip and to start understanding the community and culture we are about to witness, we have been reading two books about the Apache and Navajo experience: Navajos Wear Nikes by Jim Kristofic and Don’t Let the Sun Step Over You by Eva Tulene Watt and assisted by Keith H. Basso. Both books take different perspective that have helped us understand the people and the history. In addition to the books, we have been researching the history and context of these places and people. It is important that you, as our readers understand this narrative as well, so that your reading of our posts will be grounded in some historical context. We have laid out a summary for both the Navajo and the White Mountain Apache people to start:

The Navajo:

The Navajo, who call themselves Diné (meaning “the people”), constitute the largest reservation-based Native American tribe in the United States. Their reservation spans 25,000 square miles in the four corners region of the American southwest. They arrived in the southwest around the year 1050 CE after splitting off from the Athabascan people and migrating southwards from Canada. Influenced by the Pueblo farmers already settled in this area, the Navajo hunter-gatherers adopted an increasingly agriculture-based lifestyle. This process was accelerated by the arrival of the Spanish, who introduced horses and livestock to the Navajo, in the 16th and 17th centuries.

As was the case with all Native American peoples, the arrival of Europeans subjected the Navajo to substantial hardship. Initial conflicts with the Spanish eventually gave way to new conflicts with white American settlers. In response to the so-called “Navajo problem”, the US Army employed tactics such as destroying of Navajo crops and burning down their villages in order to force them into a concentration camp in New Mexico known as Bosque Redondo. Those who refused to surrender were driven into the mountains to freeze or starve. In 1864, the survivors gave in and were made to embark on what is known as the “Long Walk of the Navajo” – a 370 mile journey to the camp made entirely on foot. Hundreds perished during the journey and as a result of the inhumane conditions at the camp.This period of internment was brought to an end in 1866, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs assumed responsibility for managing the Navajo and the US government created the Navajo reservation out of a small portion of the tribe’s original territory.

Since 1969, the Navajo land has been known as “the Navajo Nation” as the result of a resolution passed by the Navajo Tribal Council. The structure of the Tribal Council was reorganized in 1989 and today the government of the Navajo Nation is based on a system of checks and balances between its executive, judicial, and legislative branches.

The Navajo religion places a large role in tribal life, with even the large population of Navajos who identify as Christians continuing to engage in traditional spiritual practices. The Navajo believe that the universe is inhabited by two types of people: human beings and and Holy People, who inflict disease and disaster in response to human transgressions. Central to Navajo spirituality is the concept of hózhó, which encompasses “beauty, harmony, balance, health, goodness, etc”. Numerous different ceremonies are performed for the purpose of preserving and restoring hózhó, each of which involves its own set of chants. A specific sand painting, of which about 1,200 varieties exist in total, goes along with every chant.

Although it is impossible to make accurate generalizations about an entire people, the Navajo do have some common values and tendencies in the ways they interact and form interpersonal relationships. These will be particularly important for us to keep in mind as attempt to communicate with them in the most respectful and culturally appropriate way possible. The Navajo tend to approach things carefully and at a slow pace, listening quietly to others, speaking slowly and thoughtfully, and taking the time to fully consider an issue before making a decision. Traditionally, the tribe has been governed by consensus rather than majority rule, although this tends not to be the case today.The Navajo also strongly value generosity, as well as reciprocity in both the good and the bad done to them by others.

Unfortunately, the Navajo today suffer from a disproportionate amount of problems compared to the general US population. Like most Native Americans, the Navajo continue to be afflicted by unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Suicide and child abuse are also particularly pressing issues among the Navajo. Furthermore, significant tensions exist between more traditional members of the tribe and those who favor modernization. Finally, the environmental damage done by oil drilling, mining, and overgrazing have jeopardized much of the Navajo lands. (“Navajo”)

White Mountain Apache:

The White Mountain Apache are with whom we’ll be spending most of our time on this trip. Apache, meaning ‘enemy’ in the Zuni Pueblo language, are Native people who settled in the South West in 1400 BCE. Apache people were generally nomadic due to the aridity of the soil surrounding the Grand Canyon and beyond. The White Mountain Apache Tribe is one of 12 Apache bands, each politically independent yet culturally and linguistically connected. Historically, the Apache were separated into six extended families, or gotas, that lived, hunted, and farmed together. Each gota was created matrilineally, and was led by a headman. Women were politically important to intertribal harmony, through men were always the headmen and leaders. Due to the severe climate of the desert, Apache were known for their resilience and raiding of Hopi and Pueblo tribes for material goods. After the Spanish attempted to invade their tribal lands in 1599, the Apache obtained horses and other livestock from Spanish raids, strengthening their mobility and nation’s power. The Spanish were cruel to the Apache, forcing tribe members, even Christian converts, into slavery. The Apache were able to resist such oppression through continual raids and stealing of horses, and often Spanish colonists left Apache regions out of fear.

The relationship between American colonists and White Mountain Apache began as an alliance against the Chiricahua Apache. After their victory, however, the White Mountain people quickly became subjugated by the American colonists who had established a fort on their land. This fort then played a role in the lengthy wars between the American colonists and Native American tribes. The White Mountain Apache continue to reside on these traditional lands, a portion of their 1.6 million acres on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. The Fort Apache Indian Reservation was established by an Executive Order in 1891; its placement on traditional lands is reported to have been as reward for the service of White Mountain Apache guides to the American army. As is true for the Navajo people, the White Mountain Apache have been and continue to be maltreated by white Americans, stripping the community of most of their land, and attempting to eradicate their language and culture.

Though the White Mountain Apache were once nomadic, they have become sentiary since the invasion of white Americans on their land. The tribe was never displaced as other indigenous people were; it remains on the same lands that it has always lived on. The importance of traditional lands can be best understood in the recognition that the, “White Mountain Apache culture emphasizes the infusion of the physical world with mental and spiritual dimensions,” (Long 2003).  Apache language demonstrates the inseparability of the two: the root word ni’ can refer to either “mind” or “land” (Bray 1999).  The White Mountain Apache Tribe’s first creation story explains that water is the breath of the earth – it is alive and sacred. The mythological importance of water persists in Apache culture today through their upholding of bodies of water on their land. Environmental concerns are especially important to the White Mountain Apache, due to their understanding of the interactions between the interior and exterior world.

Ultimately, our primary goal for this trip is to remain respectful towards Native people often appropriated in White American culture. We are cognizant of the danger of becoming “white saviors” in areas of different racial backgrounds, therefore it is of utmost importance that we, as outsiders, do not disrupt or disturb the way of life that is so unique to that area. With that being said, we hope that with our awareness of these issues, we will be able to observe and attempt to understand this crucial part of American History and how our current political climate and social structures impact the life of native people.

It is with great excitement that we are able to share our experiences with you through this blog! Iit will both serve you, as the reader, and allow us, as the writers, to process and share  the possibly weighty experiences we will have throughout the week.

Jane Abbott, Maggie Lind, and Gwyneth Turner

P.S. We understand this post is quite lengthy. We hope to keep our others shorter but we believe the history is an important part of our project and hope to illustrate that for you in this first post.


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