Navajo (or Navaho) Indians, a tribe forming part of the southern division of the Athapascan linguistic family. The Navajos are the second largest tribe in the United States, numbering about 269,000. Only the Cherokee tribe had more members. Most of the Navajos live on or near their main reservation of some 24,000 square miles (62,000 km2)—the largest in the country—in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.
Income derived from oil, gas, and uranium deposits on the reservation has made it possible for the tribe to develop industrial enterprises. Navajo coal is used to generate electricity for the reservation. Timber cut from Navajo forests is processed in a tribal sawmill. Owning some of the country's most scenic land, the tribe has built many modern tourist facilities. A number of outside firms have, on invitation, built plants on the reservation; Navajos work in these and also off the reservation.
Irrigation makes cultivation of some crops possible, but raising sheep and goats is a more common Navajo occupation. Wool rugs and blankets handwoven by the women are highly valued, as is the silver and turquoise jewelry made by the men.
The majority of Navajos still live in hogans—mound-shaped, windowless dwellings made of logs and mud. An increasing number, however, have homes with modern conveniences. Construction of sanitation facilities, medical centers, and roads into isolated areas has improved tribal health.
An extensive school-building program begun after World War II has made education available to all Navajo children. There are three types of schools—Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, public schools, and mission schools. The Navajo Community College, the first college established by Indians on a reservation, opened in 1969.
The Navajo Nation, as the tribe calls itself, is governed by the Tribal Council, which is headed by an elected chairman and meets at Window Rock, Arizona.
The Navajos, who are kin to the Apaches, may have arrived at their present lands as early as 1000 A.D. They were a seminomadic tribe, subsisting by growing corn and hunting; after sheep were introduced into the New World by the Spanish, the Navajos became proficient sheep-herders. They often raided other tribes and fought the Spanish.
During the 19th century, both the United States and the Navajos failed to honor strictly the terms of peace treaties, and relations became strained. In 1864, in an effort to stop Navajo raiding, U.S. Army troops attacked Navajo villages and rounded up much of the tribe. They were forced to stay on a reservation near Fort Sumner, New Mexico, until 1868, when they were resettled on a reservation created on part of their former lands. The Navajos then numbered about 9,000. They lived in extreme poverty until discovery of oil on their lands in 1921.
In 1974, in an effort to solve a long-simmering dispute, the federal government ordered many Navajos to move from lands that were part of the Hopi reservation, which the Navajo reservation surrounds. The Navajos, whose families in many cases had lived on Hopi land for generations, protested. Although relocation was begun, the dispute continued into the 1990's.