Every nation on earth has its own name. I don’t mean the name that it is most commonly called by, but I mean the name that that nation, being it a country or an ethnic group, has given themselves to be known by.
There is a lot of power in a name, and a lot of power to be taken away when denying that name. A good example of this is Japan.
We and most other people in the world call Japan ‘Japan’, but the Japanese do not call their country ‘Japan’ or themselves ‘Japanese’. They call their country ‘Nihon’ and themselves ‘Nihon-jin’.
There are many theories why we call Japan ‘Japan’, but the most prominent is that Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer called it Japan, so now we do.
This is incredibly common and happens in almost every language, but if you want to find out about a people or a culture, it is far more productive and far more eye-opening to ask them why they call themselves as they do.
Take the Navajo people, in their language they do not call themselves ‘Navajo’. So, why do we? Where does the name come from? And what does their adopted name and their true name mean?
For those not caught up on American history or who don’t live in the South-western states, this may be a group of people you have yet to hear of before. The Navajo are an ancient, Native American people from the South-western United States.
Originally, they are believed to have come from Canada and Alaska, but they migrated into the US and eventually settled in the lands of the Southwest at around 1400 AD.
At this point in time, they were largely hunter-gatherers, but as they contacted the Pueblo people to the south, they diversified their standard practices and began farming.
This relationship with the Pueblo became close and there is still quite a lot of friendly association between these two groups to this day. Part of the reason is that while the Pueblo were amazing farmers, they were not as good at hunting large game as the Navajo and so it benefited both groups to do mutual exchanges.
The time when the Spanish came in the 1600s began a period of strife and near constant warfare between the two groups. Although they traded herding techniques and livestock with the Spanish, the latter’s constant expansion and their movement of aggressive expeditionary forces in Navajo territory for raids, meant that the Navajo were always wary of them.
Due to the power of Spain and then Mexico (when it gained independence and the Navajo territory), the number and experience of the Navajo people, and the other Native Americans in the area, neither side could dislodge the other nor sue for a lasting peace, until 1846.
This was the beginning of the Mexican American war and would eventually lead to the secession of territory, including the Navajo territory, to the US.
The US army was a lot more brutal in their tactics and actively hunted the Navajo to force them off their land. Eventually, this culminated in an event known as the Long Walk, where the Navajo were forced to walk hundreds of miles across state lines and placed in an internment camp, resulting in woe and many deaths.
After these events, the Navajo reservation was founded and though it was a long time and a lot more brutal strife for these people before things got better, they did get better.
In the modern day, the Navajo are the largest Native American tribe in the US, with close to 400,000 members, and they have control of the largest native territory in the country, the Navajo Nation.
As stated earlier, Navajo is not the native name for the Navajo. It actually comes from two separate places. The first (but chronologically last place) is from Spanish. The Spanish called the Navajo ‘Apaches de Navajo’ or the ‘Apaches of Navajo, which was the region name at the time’.
In this case, when the Spanish claimed the territory that the Navajo lived in, there were a lot of other people living there. Most of these were different groups that culturally come under the umbrella of the Apache, however tribally, and linguistically, they are all quite distinct.
The Navajo are actually distinct cousins of the Apache and their languages are similar, but they are still distinct in their own way. It is like an Irish and a Scottish person, they are both Celtic peoples with linguistically similar languages, but they are by no means the same.
However, the Spanish conquistadors ended up grouping them all together with little regard for cultural integrity, so everyone in these tribes became the Apache of Navajo.
The actual word Navajo comes from a different native people called the Pueblo, who we mentioned earlier. In Tewa, the language of the Pueblo, navahū is a word that means farm fields adjoining to a valley and this is the word Navajo is derived from.
So, in truth, the original Spanish name for the Navajo is the Apache of the farm fields adjoining to a valley.
Of course, since the Navajo were around long before the Spanish, they have never really referred to themselves as Navajo, except when speaking English.
I know a lot of Native American languages have struggled to survive in the US thanks to reform schools and the forced learning of English on native peoples, but Navajo has not only survived but thrived.
It has the largest native speaker base of any native language above Mexico, and it continues to maintain a relatively healthy speaker base of 170,000 native speakers at home and 300,000 people with some knowledge of the language.
The name for the Navajo people in Navajo is Diné and the name of the language is Diné Bizaad. Unlike the Spanish amalgamation of words to create a name with a long meaning for the Diné people, the Diné refer to themselves in a way that is humble and concise, as the word Diné means ‘People’. This is continued over to their language, as Diné Bizaad just means ‘People’s Language’.
Diné Bizaad is actually quite a difficult and complex language, so the fact that both the people who speak it and the language itself is referred to in such a simple and humble way is really beautiful to see.
Although the name Navajo is not the name the Diné give themselves, it is the name that we know them by in English. The circumstances regarding the giving of this name are not the best, but the fact that it is the name of the region which was their home is better than what it could be.
Names are the path to meaning and the native name for the Diné tells you exactly who they are, whereas our English name for these people tells us where they came from: The people of Navajo.