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Life Among the Navajos
From The Baptist Argus, 1907
Rev. N. B. Rairden, Superintendent of Missions

Interesting Facts About the Noted Indian Tribe of the Southwest. Methods of Agriculture in a Barren Region. The Making and Worth of Genuine Navajo Blankets. Baptist Missions.

      The Navajo Indian, (pronounced Navaho), reservation is a very large one, about one half of it in the northwest corner of New Mexico, and the other half in the northeast corner of Arizona. This reservation has more than twenty-thousand Navajo Indians on it, each trying to get a scanty living from the almost barren soil.

      The country is as near a desert as any part of New Mexico or Arizona. It is true that there are a few small streams and "arroyas", from which water can be taken in the early spring to irrigate a few acres of land. It is also true that the government has developed, along the San Juan river and some other larger streams, comprehensive systems of irrigation which will do much to relieve the present famine which continually exists among many of these people.

Navajos Not Lazy.

      These Indians were once a very warlike people, but since being confined upon the reservation the struggle for existence has been so great that they have had no time for anything else. The government has never fed these Indians as it has so many of the tribes farther east. Individual industry has, therefore been developed in a remarkable way. They are as faithful and industrious as people of any color anywhere. They will work from daylight to dark for a dollar a day and will give as good service when working alone as if they were under the eye of someone in charge of the work.

      The Navajo women have larger opportunity and greater influence than the women in most Indian tribes. They own all the sheep and goats and a large part of the cattle. They and the children care for these, though this is largely because it is necessary for the men [man] of the house to go a long way from home to cultivate his crop.

      Sometimes the women and children will move their flocks and herds a good many miles from their permanent homes in order to find better pasture, or on account of water. The women are usually modest and retiring. They do all the weaving and sell the blankets themselves or exchange them for supplies at the trader's store.

Irrigation and Crop Raising.

      No crops can be raised without irrigation, and there are very few streams that have water in them more than a month or two in the spring, it becomes quite a problem how to utilize it so as to raise a crop. They raise nothing in the way of grain except corn.

      They divide up the labor of building a dam across some little "arroya", and building a ditch down to the flat land at its mouth. They throw up an embankment about a foot high around each field, usually less than an acre in extent. Sometimes there will be a dozen or possibly twenty fields adjoining each other.

      When the embankments are completed around each little patch, they will turn the water onto them until each is filled full. This is then allowed to soak away. As soon as the water disappears, the Navajo takes a sharp stick and makes holes in the mud, in which to drop his corn.

      As soon as the planting is completed, he returns to his home which may be a dozen miles away, and remains until time for the corn to come up. He then returns and carefully guards it against birds and animals, until it is finally gathered and taken home.

      After the hoeing has been done, they divide up the labor of watching the fields, as one Indian can watch half a dozen fields as well as one. In this way they are not confined as closely by their farming opt rations as many others.

      They are a very thrifty, industrious people, and as soon as they are relieved from their regular work, the men will seek employment and the women give their time to the weaving of their blankets.

Their Hogans

      Their hogans, or houses, are built of small stones or adobe, (sun-dried brick) and plastered with mud. They are from ten to eighteen feet in diameter and are always round.

      As soon as the walls are laid up four or five feet, they begin to arch them over until they have left about half of the space, which is always left open winter and summer. This serves as an escape for the smoke and also for ventilation. In severe weather it also renders them extremely cold.

      The medicine men are usually very thrifty and prey upon the superstitions of the people for their own profit. The Navajos believe that all sickness is caused by evil spirits, and these medicine men, who are also the priests of their religion, seek to locate these spirits and drive them from the body of the patient.

      One of the methods of treating diseases is to sing; whether it is in the hope that the music will charm the evil spirit or frighten it, is a great question. Whatever the disease, they usually insist upon a three days' feast, and the people gather from many miles. At this feast, they sing and dance, making many hideous noises.

      In fixing his compensation, the medicine man usually asks for the exact number of sheep, goats, cattle and ponies which he knows the family to possess. It is then a question of bargaining between him and the patient or some representative of the family, as to how much he shall actually receive.

Navajo Blankets.

      Gradually as the younger Indians are educated in the schools, they give up their native Indian work. A few years ago, an Indian tanned buffalo robe could be had at almost any price; now they cannot be obtained for love or money, and the art of tanning and dyeing buffalo robes have become extinct.

      It will be just so with the Navajo blankets. Already the traders, ever anxious to increase their profits, are introducing a cheap grade of yarn already dyed, and a cotton warp, in order to cheapen production. Thousands of counterfeit Navajo blankets have been made in factories in the East and sold

p. 23      The best blankets now come from the bands of Navajos far from the railroads, for there they have not yet learned to cheapen their blankets by using poor materials. They own their own sheep and prepare their own yarn, dye it themselves, and use nothing but wool warp.

      These blankets are woven from their own designs and no two of them are ever alike, because the women, sitting on the ground before their crude looms, weave into their blankets the pictures in their minds at that time. They are used for rugs, couch covers, portieres, and decorations, and will wear a life-time even under very hard usage. We have in our own home Navajo blankets that have been in constant wear for twelve or fifteen years without perceptible change in appearance, except that the colors become brighter.

      The prices are advancing, and the next few years will probably see genuine Navajo blankets double in value for as the years go by, they become more and more difficult to get.

Navajo Missions.

      It is strange that this exceedingly bright and interesting people should have been left so long without the preaching of the gospel. We have but one mission among them. This is located about eighty miles from the railroad, in the very heart of that portion of the reservation which is in New Mexico.

      The gospel has from the beginning, commanded the respect of these people. Already some half-dozen or more, have professed conversion. Some of these have shown that the work has been genuine by their withstanding temptation and persecution. This, however, does not measure the results of the work, for in many hundreds of darkened minds, the gospel has been planted to bear fruitage by and by, in the Lord's own good time. Nor does this one mission measure our responsibility to these people for whom Christ died.

      There have been repeated requests for the establishment of another mission among these people, on the Arizona side of the reservation, but so far, we have been unable to grant these requests from lack of funds. We are hoping that this may reach the eyes of some of the Lord's servants who feel that it would be a privilege to help send the gospel to these people, who are so earnestly asking for it.


      New York Life Building, Omaha, Nebraska.


From The Baptist Argus, Vol. 11, No. 26, June 27, 1907, pp. 7, 23; via Baylor U. digital edition. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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