The Navajo as Most “American” of Native Americans

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 451-469:

The Navajos, with their linguistic cousins, the Apaches, had ventured down the spine of the Rockies from the bitterness of Athapaska, in what is now northern Canada and Alaska. It’s tempting to imagine that they simply held a council in some godforsaken snowdrift beneath the northern lights and decided, once and for all, that they’d had enough of the cold. But in fact, their southward migration does not appear to have been a determined exodus; rather, it was undertaken slowly, in many haphazard and circuitous waves. The Athapaskans began flooding into the Southwest sometime around A.D. 1300. Late arrivals to the region, the Navajos split off from the Apaches and then quickly evolved from a primitive culture of hunter-gatherers to perhaps the most supple and multifarious of all the Southwestern peoples. Over a few short centuries, the Navajos improvised a life that borrowed something from every culture they encountered, spinning it into a society that was entirely their own.

Their creation story, called the Emergence, is thought by some anthropologists to be an allegory for their long migration from Canada. Retold in nightchants and rituals performed during the winter months, the Emergence captures much that is unique about the Navajo—their sense of having been wandering exiles through most of their early history, perpetual outsiders expelled from one country after another, forced to complete a complicated series of journeys through strange dark lands until they finally lit on the “glittering world,” as they called their present home; their tendency to view themselves as a tribe apart from others—a kind of chosen people of the Southwest, convinced of their special relationship to the gods and confident in the power of their rituals. And yet simultaneously, a tribe eager to absorb the ideas and implements of others, and to mingle with other peoples. If the Navajo indulged in a tribal pride that bordered on arrogance, it was an arrogance cut with an extraordinary impulse to accept other traditions, a natural ease for ushering in new ways and even new blood.

In a sense, the Navajo were the most “American” of the American Indians: They were immigrants, improvisationists, mongrels. They were mobile and restless, preferring to spread out as far as possible from one another over large swatches of country while still remaining within the boundaries of their land. They inhaled the essence of other cultures, taking what they liked and adapting it to their own ends.

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Filed under language, migration, North America, U.S.

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