They are the “people of the land”. Diné is the literal translation for a nation of more than 340,000 men women and children living in a breathtaking land more than 27,000 square miles. They are the proud, resilient Navajo Nation.
The Navajo are descendants of Athabascans -a people believed to have migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska centuries ago. They were hunters and gatherers, often moving from place to place. When they settled in the southwest and came in contact with other pueblos and the Spanish, they adopted new ways of herding and trading goat and sheep.
Their land -like their language- has been integral to their social identity for centuries. Both came under attack in the 19th century as America was engulfed in Civil War. Colonel Kit Carson led a scorched earth campaign in the fall of 1863 to forcibly remove the Navajo from their lands after reports of gold and other valuable resources populated the region. The U.S. Army led thousands of Navajo to Bosque Redondo in what became known as the long walk.
More than 350 miles were traversed on foot by men, women and children. Once they arrived in the barren, flood-prone region of New Mexico, they were forced to live in abysmal conditions -often with little shelter, scarce rations of food and alkaline water.
After the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson ordered the internment camp closed. However, by the time the Treaty of 1868 was signed, more than 3000 Navajo had died.
When they returned to their lands -which mostly now comprises the Navajo Nation- they were forced to go to U.S. schools and were forbidden to speak their native language. The move threatened to kill off a vital part of the Navajo identity -and could have cost the U.S. victory in World War II.
It was the complex and cryptic Navajo language that helped the United States achieve victory against the Japanese in World War II. Some 400 men were enlisted to create a lexicon of strategic instructions which the enemy could not break. The story of the Navajo Code Talkers would only come to light years after the war ended.
In recent years, the cultural identity of the Navajo has re-emerged. The Gallup Board of Education proposed re-introducing the Navajo language to school children. The governing board of the Nation features 88 Council delegates, representing 110 Nation chapters, and has evolved into the most sophisticated form of American Indian government.